I found yet another fascinating article in the New York Times this morning. It is entitled “‘Have You Ever Been in Psychotherapy, Doctor?’” In the article, psychiatrist Dr. Richard Friedman tells the story of one of his psychiatric residents being posed this question by a patient. The resident was thrown by the question, but he realized the answer was of highest importance to the patient. He told Dr. Friedman, “‘He wanted to know if I knew what it felt like to be ill and helpless.’” The patient was looking for true compassion.
The word “compassion” is defined by its two parts, com- and pati, which mean “together to suffer” or more simply “co-suffering”. The patient in this story needed someone who understood his suffering on more than just a superficial level, someone who had even experienced it themselves. A cerebral, textbook approach simply would not do.
Isn’t it often the case that when we want to be understood, we find comfort in those who have experienced what we have? When the person trying to help us can’t relate to us, their desire to simply “fix” the problem can have the unintended affect of obscuring our need for understanding/compassion, making us feel dismissed or unimportant (I know I have been on both sides of this equation!).
Dr. Friedman makes an excellent point, that connecting with our own pain and suffering is probably the most important step to being able to offer help to anyone else. It’s true: the knowledge that we are all in the same boat – broken people in a broken world – often produces true compassion for our fellow man. Underneath all of this, of course, I can’t help but be reminded of the One who suffered everything in order to rescue us in the midst of our suffering.