The other day, my two young children were playing a tee-ball game in a local youth sports league. One of the players on their team had taken a ball to the face, and, while he wasn’t badly hurt, of course it was a shock of pain, surprise, and probably embarrassment for the little guy. He was crying—loudly—as the game went on. As he cried, it became clear that he didn’t want to leave the game, but was told by the coach that he might have to if he couldn’t pull it together.
This boy happens to be a neighbor and one of my son’s best friends. I prompted my children to approach the child and offer some words of companionship and comfort, whereupon both children looked at me as though I’d grown an extra head and proceeded to stand as if their feet had grown deep roots. My older child, after a second and third prompting, stood very thoughtfully, staring at the boy, and, with a deep breath that very much looked like a screwing-up-of-courage breath, marched herself over to the boy, patted him on the back, said something brief, and fled in relief. But, also, she looked proud; she had done something a little scary, but it had been kind, and she took satisfaction in doing the harder-but-right thing. My younger child followed her example and made his own approach and offering of compassion.
The boy stopped crying and stayed in the game. He’d just needed a little support, without pressure to stop crying. He needed his pain recognized by friends.
I think, in ways big and small, this is something we can all relate to. Most of us have been that kid, the crying kid, alone with our pain and confusion in a world of people playing on, at some point. And most of us have also been the players-on, feeling awkward and unsure of how to approach someone who was shaken with pain, fear, and isolation, afraid of saying the wrong thing and so choosing to say nothing.
We learn this silence in our culture. We are not taught how to be with people in pain. We avoid both the topic in the abstract and the actual experiences with our children in the name of saving them pain and hard conversations. We tend to hide our sick, our dying, our grieving, and our wounded from the hubbub of everyday life while we play on; when they are well enough to stop crying, they can rejoin the game. We are a culture of doers and problem solvers—it’s one of the things that built America.
But what do you do when there is nothing to do, nothing you can solve? What do you do when a teammate’s pain is raw and unresolvable, at least now and certainly not by you?
It is hard to be with someone in overwhelming pain. People in overwhelming pain sometimes lash out in their own pain. This is the nature of trauma, depression, grief—it is pain sometimes, overwhelming pain.
Here’s the thing: we are fundamentally social creatures. It is deep in our DNA. Like ants, macaques, and elephants, we have complex social groups that are foundational to our identities and our existence. We live in groups; our need for our tribes is as fundamental to being human as language or the drive for bipedal locomotion. We need our tribes for security, for identity, for comfort, and for pleasure. There’s safety in numbers. It’s among the very first information we exchange when we meet somebody: “What’s your name?” “What do you do?” Read: What tribes do you belong to? Your family name, your occupation, your signifiers (both verbal and nonverbal) of social status—these are ways of communicating about your tribes and, perhaps, finding some affiliations in common with those we are newly acquainted with.
We need our tribes; it’s really that simple.
We need them, especially, when we are weakened by pain, illness, or injury. Sometimes, they can provide practical assistance. Broken leg? They can offer rides or help you carry things while you manage crutches. Broken heart? Really, there’s not much they can do … except be there. Sometimes, just providing witness is all we can do—and it matters. Sometimes, we just need our pain recognized by friends. And in that recognition, we need to know that we are loved unconditionally, that we are not alone, that we will not be cast out or abandoned while we muddle through at much less than our best selves.
It is hard to be with someone in overwhelming pain. People in overwhelming pain sometimes lash out in their own pain. This is the nature of trauma, depression, grief—it is pain sometimes, overwhelming pain. And unlike that broken leg, we can’t see it healing, can’t apply a cast and wait, can’t take that burden from the person affected. But if someone in your own life is carrying this burden, know that—although you cannot take away his or her burden—you can be there. Let the person know that he or she still has a tribe and is still surrounded by people who love and want him or her, even as he or she muddles through at far less than the best versions of himself or herself. Witness the pain; this is powerful support for a fundamentally social being. Give the person the space and time that he or she needs, of course—don’t be intrusive—and let the person know you care, that he or she hasn’t been abandoned, that he or she is still welcome to play on your team. Don’t assume that the person just knows this if you don’t reach out and reaffirm it—pain tends to magnify feelings of isolation.
Even when our teammates cannot help carry our burden, the knowledge that they will walk alongside us while we carry it is palliative. Screw up your courage, march up to them, and say, “Hey, I’m here, and I care—no pressure to stop crying or pretend you are well if you aren’t. I accept you and care for you as you are.” No need for complexity or expertise. Caring counts, a lot. Our tribes are powerful. Let’s not forget that when one of our teammates needs to lean on that.
Note: Welcoming somebody to play on your team may be very complicated in cases of addiction or other profoundly dysfunctional behaviors, which all too often go along with trauma, prolonged depression, and other forms of psychological pain. In these cases, boundaries about this may need to be clear and firm, and I recognize the importance of this. However, I think we can still communicate our care and love for the person while holding a firm line about the behavior.
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