Friday, March 4, 2022

Bearing Witness to Suffering.

By  David S. Prescott, LICSW, & Kieran McCartan, Ph.D.

The events of this past week have been tragic beyond description. The Putin-led attack on Ukraine has caused further global fear and anxiety at a time when so many of us have felt wrung out from two years of the pandemic. Of course, all of these current circumstances rest on top of other concerns shared by many and discussed publicly over recent years, such as climate change, racial discrimination, and disparities, and the list goes on. Could things get any more complicated than they are? Maybe it’s better not to ask.

These events have affected many of us very deeply. As with other topics we’ve blogged about, current events extend far beyond the scope of this blog and our abilities to discuss authoritatively. These events also present a dilemma for us: Attempts to discuss them will almost certainly fall short, and yet not acknowledging them would be tantamount to turning a blind eye to suffering. Most assuredly, in one way or another, we are all bearing witness to suffering.

The fact is that many of us spend our days listening to narratives of abuse, from police reports and impact statements to disclosures of offending and of adversity in the backgrounds of clients. We then read news about people on the other side of the world in similar circumstances. There are images of people huddled underground in subway stations with backpacks and pets in the news and we catch up with loved ones deeply affected by the pandemic. Along the way we may feel guilty because others we know have it worse.

It only makes sense that with this most recent news we take the time to collectively acknowledge the stress and even the parallel processes of abuse on our caseload and in the community. So what can we do? We may be surrounded by suffering, but can we also bear witness to hope?

We certainly have no magic solutions, but we do hope to invite dialogue. What we are aware of is:

Professionals in our field care deeply about ending abuse. Our best resources include the fact that we are in this together — in the same boat and same storm. There can be relief in simply knowing this. We may disagree on some things, but we are truly united in this. We can find shelter with one another.

Many of us are professional listeners. We understand the difference between listening with a goal of understanding and other, lesser forms of listening, such as waiting for an opportunity to try to be helpful, to respond, or even to interrupt. It is easy to forget how curative being listened to can be.

In addition to listening, it important that we are considerate communicators. It is important that we communicate our ideas, understandings, and opinions in the most effective, caring, and compassionate way to the people around us. Sometimes this is about falling back on our professional training, but more often it’s about common sense and reading the room. This means that we cannot simply be on “auto-pilot” we need to be engaged and present.

Much is made of activities such as yoga, meditation, rest, exercise, and nutrition. This often comes with the price tag of feeling that maybe if we’d done more of these things, we wouldn’t feel the grief and anxiety that we do at any given moment. These are the times when we can remember that grief and anxiety come to us all and that we have an opportunity to practice many of the same skills we teach to our clients. It can also help to remember that even a few minutes of deliberate self-care can create hours of relief under the right circumstances.

Finally, it can be enormously helpful to choose self-care activities that help us be our best when we get back in the game. What talents and skills do we have in our lives that can be helpful to others? The person who enjoys cooking might help others to cook, while the person with a dedicated meditation practice might help others to meditate. Sometimes it’s as simple as giving blood simply to help someone we will never meet; generosity is also curative. It often seems that in the rush and stresses of daily life, we often forget all the things we have to offer one another. The most important piece to remember is that self-care looks different for everyone. We understand that our clients are individuals and need different responses and engagement, so we would do well to remember that we as professionals and our support systems do, too. Have understanding, not expectations.

Each reader will have additional ideas and we would love to hear them. We may have challenges, but we also have the know-how, and we have hope

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