When we see that someone is suffering, for whatever reason and in whatever way, we have a natural inclination to comfort them. (It is true that some people have this inclination conditioned out of them, but there is ample evidence of natural empathic response, even in infants and even to strangers.) It is certainly true that seeing anothers suffering can make us feel discomfort, perhaps particularly if it is someone we know and care about. It can easily seem that to offer comfort is the kindest, most compassionate action we can take, and to offer comfort to another may also be a way of making ourselves feel less uncomfortable. And, of course, it can also reinforce an idea or image of ourselves as “good” caring people.
However, there are certainly situations where comforting, i.e., trying to mitigate or eliminate suffering, is not the kindest or most compassionate action we can take. For most of us one of the primary, and perhaps the primary, motivation to change and grow is discomfort, pain, suffering. It is easy to see this principle at work in the physical realm. When our body is in pain it is a clue that something needs to change. When we seek assistance, it is common that those who try to alleviate the pain cause us more pain initially, even if only temporarily. If the healer says “I’m not going to give you this treatment because I know it will cause you more pain for a while”, we would not consider that kind or compassionate or helpful.
It is more difficult in nonphysical realms of experience to discern which situations and individuals will benefit from comforting and which will not. If someone is grieving for a loved one who died, comforting is certainly called for. If someone is still lost in grief many months later, not leaving home, not engaging with the world, dragging them kicking and screaming back into life may be the kindest most compassionate response we can offer. This is true even though it makes both of us pretty uncomfortable at the time.
There are very many less clear situations when it is obvious that someone is suffering but not obvious how we can best be helpful. I am sure most of you are familiar with the idea of allowing alcoholics and drug addicts to hit bottom. This is accomplished by NOT doing anything to alleviate their suffering, by turning our backs even on their pleas for help. We do it because we understand that only their own pain will lead them, we hope, to take the necessary steps to change the cause of the suffering. And we also understand that we cannot do it for them, no matter how much we want to, no matter how much we care. In addiction circles this is referred to as tough love. It is tough for a number of reasons. It is tough on the addict because it increases their current suffering. It is tough on us because we can see that we are increasing their suffering and it feels bad to do that to anyone, regardless of how appropriate and necessary it might be. We may feel unkind and unloving, and may be accused of that. We may risk losing a treasured relationship, incurring anger and blame. And there isn’t even a guarantee that the addict will take the steps necessary. What is a guarantee is that, if the steps are not taken, the old pattern will continue along with the attendant suffering.
We can take a lesson from this. If we see someone repeating a pattern of behavior that seems always to lead to their unhappiness, we can see that they are like the addict. What this calls for from us depends on the nature of our relationship. If we care enough about the person, we are called to point out to them how their own actions cause their suffering, not to simply offer them comfort and hope it doesn’t happen again. If we see the pattern but don’t want to point it out, we can try to ignore it and avoid dealing with the person when it comes up again. Once the pattern is clear to us, however, offering genuine empathy and comfort for just their suffering becomes increasingly difficult, since we can see that the only solution lies in changing the pattern. And we can see that our attempts to offer comfort work against such change. This presents the need for further discernment. Will simple comments, gentle nudges, repeated suggestions, be effective in helping that person to see the pattern? Is some more direct conversation and pointing out the necessary path? Is turning our backs on their suffering required?
Each of us who find ourselves in such a relationship will make our own choices, frequently based on what is most comfortable for us, causes the least discomfort for us, and protects our self-image.
For all of us self-knowledge, self-understanding, self-compassion are key. Whether we like it or not, discomfort, the experience of suffering, is frequently the impetus to develop those qualities. Self-blame, defensiveness, denial, repression, justifying, excusing, blaming others, blaming circumstances, feeling victimized, ignoring, distracting, sedating, and all such methods of avoidance simply keep us locked into the old conditioned patterns and the unhappiness they bring. So we would do well to embrace our discomforts without falling into the avoidance trap. We would do well to examine as clearly and directly as possible how we got ourselves, perhaps repeatedly, into the situation we are in. We would do well to ask for help if we need it. Seeing and living through our faults and foibles with absolute clarity and simple compassion may sound easy, but it is one of the most difficult tasks we can undertake. The reward is that the patterns fall away, simply by recognizing and acknowledging them, and we escape the prison of our conditioning.