Culture's approach to suffering only prolongs pain


When I was a priest, I used to stand behind an altar and lift bread and wine, intoning the words of the liturgy, asking the bread and wine to be for the people transformative symbols. I often mused how easy it was to make these symbols into sentiment. But, you can't stand behind that table and not remember that these symbols are symbols of suffering. The bread is broken. The wine is poured out.

I no longer stand behind an altar. I sit in an office chair. But I still don't forget. Because no one comes to therapy who isn't suffering. People pay good money for me to provide 50 minutes of acute attention to their suffering. To help them look for ways to heal suffering. And, for those kinds of sufferings that can never be entirely healed, to bear it. To find meaning in it. In some cases, to turn that suffering into some transformative work in the world.

I have an affinity for reality. Let me explain.

I did not say that I do not regularly do everything in my power to dodge some realities. Like most people, I'm quite capable of self-deception, even illusory ways of thinking, feeling and being that help me play "cat and mouse" with the truth in me and around me. This is what the human ego does. That's one of the realities for which I have an affinity. And it's here that I need -- like everyone needs -- true friends. A loving spouse, a trusted friend or family member. These folks find a way -- gently or not so gently -- to insist that you turn your attention to the obvious.

At least, it's often obvious to those who love you.

By affinity for the truth I mean I'm convinced the truth is an ally, friend and advocate, if indeed frequently a holy terror. I cringe at the corniness of it, but it's a fact that the truth shall set you free. And the truth is this: The human journey includes suffering. No one comes to therapy who isn't suffering.

But, here's another truth: In any given time in your life, the number of people who actually, really, honestly want and are willing to grant you an engaged and healing audience for your suffering is ... small. Even people who sincerely love and adore you might find themselves ambivalent about really engaging and listening to the part of you that suffers. See, the people around us have egos, too. Their egos mobilize to protect them just like your ego does. "Cheer up ... get over it ... God has a plan ... everybody is doing the best he or she can ... don't cry" -- the felt motive for these messages is to help you. But each of these messages also contains the anxiety of the messenger: Please stop suffering.

And that's what most modern people do. They try to stop suffering. They "get over it." They build layer upon layer of pretense and persona over their wounds, because it's, well, the sociable thing to do. Most of us, then, suffer unconsciously. Because that's the way we've been taught to suffer.

Last night, for the second time in my life, I saw comedian Bill Cosby perform. Bill is 74. And he's still mesmerizing. How can he make me laugh so hard without ever even saying the word "damn it," let alone the profanity-laced routines of most modern comedians?

Bill told a story about raising his son, Ennis. It was dear. Adorable. Funny. At the end of the story, Bill said simply, humbly, looking down at the stage: "Ennis would be 41 years old today."

There was a smattering of warm, respectful applause. I remember thinking: "Ah, now that's nice. There are a few people here who can pause from their laughter and be with Bill in his suffering. To let him know that they know. Ennis was murdered in 1997."

Empathy means literally "to enter the pathos." Compassion means literally "to suffer with." We bandy those words about too easily. It's not all that frequently we find people who will really do the work implied in those words. I cherish the people I do find. I make gentle, sober mental notes about the others: There might be many wonderful things that we can share, but I need to remember not to open every depth of my heart to you.

I no longer lift bread and wine. I lift broken, poured out people.

Steven Kalas is a behavioral health consultant and counselor at Las Vegas Psychiatry and the author of "Human Matters: Wise and Witty Counsel on Relationships, Parenting, Grief and Doing the Right Thing" (Stephens Press). His columns appear on Sundays. Contact him at 227-4165 or skalas@ reviewjournal.com.