Tuesday, March 29, 2016

The Importance of Mitleid

"Life, Interruped: The 100 Day Project," by Suleika Jaouad: 

. . . Along the way I will visit and thank some of the strangers who unexpectedly supported and inspired me when I was sick. There was a mother hooked on the pain medications she was prescribed during her cancer treatment, a man who lost his brother in the North Tower on 9/11, a fit and healthy twenty-something living in San Francisco who was searching for — everything. I heard from doctors who assigned my columns as reading to their medical students, and from students who were inspired by my writing to become doctors. I even heard from a convict on death row in Texas who wrote to me about the unexpected parallels between our lives. “The threat of death lurks in both of our shadows,” he wrote to me in careful cursive.
They don’t know it, but many of these individuals became lifelines — bright, shining lights during the darkest days. These strangers were more thoughtful, honest and vulnerable with me and each other than a lot of the people I know in the real world. Their empathy was an affirmation of humanity. Their stories of resilience gave me strength in my moments of weakness. They taught me about the kind of person I wanted to become. (First and foremost, one who reaches out in times of hardship.) Most importantly, they showed me that we all have interruptions at some point, whether it’s illness, the death of a loved one, unemployment or a bad break up.

Hardship can make us feel isolated. As much of an introvert as I am, that doesn't mean I revel in feeling like a freak. The idea that someone else weathered the storm and emerged soggy, wind-burned, and triumphant is galvanizing. 

Sharing our stories can have insane ripple effects of change. Benjamin Hertwig's "In the Waiting Room of Estranged Spouses" relates his saga of of chaos, pain, and eventual redemption after learning of his wife's infidelity. A commenter identified as "Sylvia" posted the below, which was printed with the letters:

After my recent breakup from my girlfriend of 12 years, I read your article, and a lot of the readers' comments, feeling that you and they were all quite spineless. I would have punched the guy at the market, and felt justified. I found you docile, and complacent.

I'm so angry. Anger has become my default state. And I feel justified, because it's clear my ex did a myriad of hurtful, egotistical things to me. But I'm still in pain, a numbing, defeating pain that I can't see my way out of. . . Except now.

The grace of your article was soothing like an ointment or a salve on a dry, unyielding scar. The readers' supportive, thankful comments, a chorus of love and humanity. And I woke up to the truth that my anger and self-righteousness are poison. I need and yearn to forgive; so that I can purge the mind-numbing pain, and let in joy and hope.

I thank you, all of you, most gratefully and humbly.

This letter cut me deeply. I was wowed how one man's story of overcoming pain and forging a way to peace quenched another's fury and anguish.
Humans need to connect, and true connection only occurs through vulnerability. (Brené! Brené! Brené!) In that connection, we can all heal.  


Daniel Saunders said...

They don't even have to have come out of the other side. I started going to an OCD support group recently and it was really helpful to hear other people with similar stories, some doing better than me, some doing even worse.

Vulnerability is hard. I find it easier to be confessional online (because I forget someone is actually reading all this verbiage) which might explain why I find it much, much easier to make online friends than real world ones.

Princess Lea said...

Yes, of course, that someone else is struggling too.

The great thing about vulnerability is that you only have to be with a select few.