For a long time now I have been known to throw around the phrase “perception is reality.” My whole career is based on distinguishing truth from fiction as it relates to the more complex realm of individual perception. Having your reality based on only things that you see can feel very isolating, even though to some extent we all live that way. I can’t properly convey how life affirming it is to sit with someone and accept their reality, to acknowledge that their suffering is real and that you are there for them. For some people I will be the first person in their life that lets them know, “I hear you. I see you. I see it.”
In October I sliced my right hand open after an antique Anthropologie doorknob decided to give up the ghost. At the ER, I was seen by a gruff triage nurse who explored the crevasses of my wound with his stubby fingers and declared it non-fatal, a fact that was obvious to all in the room. As he roughly irrigated the gash on my hand I asked him politely if he could be a little gentler. He was appalled. “Why? You think this hurts?” I stated that it did, in fact, hurt. He laughed piously to himself. “Before this gig I was in Iraq. I treated guys who had limbs blown off. This doesn’t hurt.” I informed him that he wasn’t in Iraq anymore but in the upper middle-class suburbs where sympathy for lesser wounds was considered good bedside manner. He ignored my lecture and sent me to the back to get glued up.
Except for in certain circumstances (like in Dialectical Behavioral Therapy where grounding a person by telling them they’re acting crazy is an effective intervention) I think that the best way to help someone is to relate to them on their perception. As a therapist I readjust my preference towards a one-size-fits-all pain scale to accommodate the individual’s experience of reality. To bring it back to the story, it wasn’t helpful for the triage nurse to measure my pain on his scale of 1 to amputee, because I will probably never experience those extremes in my suburban lifestyle. By negating the pain I was experiencing, the nurse failed to do part of his job as a healer. Also he got a formal complaint that, from the look of his supervisor, wasn’t the first formal complaint on his record.
Most of us in times of crisis are just looking to be told that we aren’t crazy or we aren’t on a deserted island of our own creation. By taking the time to see people’s pain and let them know that you see it, we can help alleviate other’s distress. What I’m trying to say is don’t lose out on an opportunity to share someone’s burden just because you don’t think their burden warrants your attention.