On Tribes and Tears: Why Simply Being There Matters So Much

youth baseball huddleThe 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.

© Copyright 2015 GoodTherapy.org. All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted by Sunda Friedman TeBockhorst, PhD, Posttraumatic Stress / Trauma Topic Expert Contributor

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by GoodTherapy.org. Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

  • Leave a Comment
  • Alice

    July 13th, 2015 at 9:23 AM

    What a great story, and reminder to us all, no matter our age, of what it is to be a leader and be a friend.

  • Christi Anne

    July 14th, 2015 at 9:55 AM

    It is always good to hear uplifting stories like this because you get a little wary of letting kids play team sports because of all the bullying that hear about, from teammates and coaches both!

  • Maureen M

    July 15th, 2015 at 4:01 AM

    A beautifully written piece that illustrates with such clarity the impact of guiding children to respond with emotional intelligence . When a child undergoes extreme distress and his (tribe of friends) show up, resiliency emerges. This article speaks to the healing power of compassion and brave but simple gestures of kindness.

  • jonah

    July 15th, 2015 at 1:25 PM

    I sometimes think that children have a better idea of what it means to be sympathetic to others than we do, but I also think that they know how to hurt in ways that adults know better to. Know what I mean? But with all of that being said, I think that if we can teach our children to care for others and how they feel, the world could be a much better place.

  • BESS

    July 16th, 2015 at 11:47 AM

    While it can be good to find that adults in your life understand you, it can be so much better as a child to see that your peers understand and support you too. In some ways it can be even more rewarding and make you feel even better because they are the people that you deal with on a day to day basis and the ones who pretty much help you develop those thoughts and feelings that you have about yourself.

  • Ellie

    July 18th, 2015 at 10:03 AM

    You know how proud it makes me if any child that I see is being kind and sympathetic to one of their own per group? And unprompted by their parent? That makes my heart sing.

  • Orphan Izzy

    July 19th, 2015 at 11:07 PM

    I feel like The note at the end of this article needs to be addressed in that often times the long-term trauma and behavior is caused by the people not including the traumatize person in the tribe and then they have the gall to set boundaries about behavior that they’ve caused. This is what has happened to me and it is a vicious vicious cycle so in reading that note I just know that the people- in this case my family- would latch onto that and use it to hurt me rather than realize they’re the cause of depressing etc.

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