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David Brooks: What do you say to the sufferer?

The sources of people’s pain may be different but they almost always involve some feeling of isolation.

(Photo by Lee Pellegrini | Boston College) New York Times columnist David Brooks delivers the commencement address at Boston College, Monday, May 24, 2021.

Several weeks ago, I gave a talk, and afterward the questions from the audience came to me on index cards. Most of the questions were about politics or society, but one card read: “What do you do when you’ve spent your life wanting to be dead?”

I didn’t answer that card because I didn’t know anything about the person who wrote it and because I didn’t know what to say. But it has haunted me, and I’ve kept the card on my nightstand ever since.

I wish I’d said that I don’t have any answers for you, but I do have a response. My response would start with the only things I know about you: You’ve been through a lot of pain over the course of your life. You have amazing powers of endurance because you are still here. I know you’re fighting still because you reached out to me. My response begins with deep respect for you.

The other thing I know is that you are not alone. There is always a lot of suffering in the world, and over the past few years we have seen high tides of despair. The sources of people’s pain may be different — grief, shame, exclusion, heartbreak, physical or mental health issues — but they almost always involve some feeling of isolation, of being cut off from others.

In my own seasons of suffering, I’ve been shocked at how emotional pain feels like searing physical pain in the stomach and chest, by how tempting it is to self-isolate and rob yourself of the very human contact you need most. But when it comes to extreme suffering, I must look to people who know more about it than I do, and one of those people is Viktor Frankl, who survived the Nazi death camps.

Frankl argued that we often can’t control what happens to us in life, that we can control only how we respond to it. If we respond to terrible circumstances with tenacity, courage, unselfishness and dignity, then we can add a deeper meaning to life. One can win small daily victories over hard circumstances.

There were many people in the camps who wanted to die more than live. In “Man’s Search for Meaning,” Frankl wrote that he would try to help them recognize that “life was still expecting something from them; something in the future was expected of them.” Frankl liked to paraphrase Nietzsche: “He who has a why to live for can bear with almost any how.”

The Bible is filled with characters who are at times overwhelmed with life and wish they could be rid of it — Jonah, Elijah, Job and even Moses. They are so central to the biblical story because desolation is part of the human experience, part of the bricks and mortar out of which we construct our lives.

Suffering had such profound and unpredictable effects on those characters, as it does on all of us. Suffering can make people self-centered, loveless, humorless and angry. But we all know cases where suffering didn’t break people but broke them open — made them more caring toward and knowledgeable about the suffering of others. And the old saying that we suffer our way to wisdom is not wrong. We often learn more from the hard times than the happy ones.

And so we are right to treat those who have suffered with respect and credibility. “Without your wound where would your power be?” Thornton Wilder wrote. “It is your very remorse that makes your low voice tremble into the hearts of men. The very angels themselves cannot persuade the wretched and blundering children on earth as can one human being broken on the wheels of living. In love’s service only the wounded soldiers can serve.”

This doesn’t mean that those who have suffered should go out giving sermons and lectures. We all know the weakness of words in these circumstances. But having tasted desolation, those who have suffered do powerfully sit with others in their desolation.

Rabbi Elliot Kukla once described a woman with a brain injury who would sometimes fall to the floor. People around her would rush to immediately get her back on her feet, before she was quite ready. She told Kukla, “I think people rush to help me up because they are so uncomfortable with seeing an adult lying on the floor. But what I really need is for someone to get down on the ground with me.”

Kukla pointed out that getting on the floor can be anxiety-producing and, when someone is in deep despair, even dangerous to the strongest caregiver. But sometimes you just get on the floor.

We all need witnesses — to witness others, to be witnessed, to draw inspiration from each other. “Consolation is an act of solidarity in space,” Michael Ignatieff wrote in his new book, “On Consolation.”

I asked a pastor what he says to people in pain. One thing he says is, “I want more for you.” I repeat that sentence to you not with any illusion that the world does what I want, but simply as an expression of goodwill, an acknowledgment of how we all sit with our common fragility, and a recognition that life is unpredictable. It changes. In many pilgrims’ progress, the slough of despond gives way to enchanted ground.


David Brooks is a columnist for The New York Times.

If you are having thoughts of suicide, in the United States call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-8255 (TALK) or go to SpeakingOfSuicide.com/resources for a list of additional resources.

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