Silent Suffering

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’m still savoring Thea Harrison's amazing novella, Pia Does Hollywood. There are about 59 minutes of heaven, according to my Kindle tracker, remaining. Yay. It doesn't take long for Pia and Dragos to inspire my muse. This time, I was struck by the idea that so much occurs below the surface that we don't see. So many of us are suffering in silence among strangers—or even those we love—bearing the burdens of grief, anxiety and despair, while wearing a outward mask of serenity. It makes me wonder what people are thinking and feeling inside, and how I can avoid adding to the load so many carry at any given time. In Pia Does Hollywood, Pia has been compelled to visit the Light Fae Queen, Tatiana, at the Queen's home in Bel Air. It quickly becomes apparent that all is not well in the Light Fae realm, despite Tatiana and her daughter, Bailey’s, efforts to show the world that they are making lemonade out of life’s lemons. Nevertheless, it's clear that something is wrong, and the truth comes spilling out contaminating all concerned. Clean up is a bitch in this case. 

I can relate. We were spending the weekend with a friend of my husband's, Bill, with whom I'd socialized casually. The weekend we were together, Bill had a major family crisis. So major that his façade cracked; he took phone call after phone call, appearing more distraught with each conversation. The story came out, and we offered what support we could. The experience made me think about all that we hide, or try to, from those around us whom we encounter incidentally. Because we can’t judge a book by its cover, we need to be compassionate at all times; most of the time, we have no idea what's going on with people.

In the aforementioned instance, we were given a window into the private life of someone we wouldn't otherwise have known so intimately. In other circumstances, I'm sure Bill would have chosen to keep his private life to himself and maintain the appearance of a genial host with nothing more on his mind than the comfort of his guests. But like Tatiana, the situation could not be contained, and the guests were necessarily coopted to action. The only upside for these beleaguered hosts – both real and paranormal - was the sense of relief they must have felt that they no longer needed keep up appearances.

A friend related a similar anecdote. Shortly after her mother died, my friend was sitting in a Starbucks, nearly paralyzed by her inner grief, drinking coffee. Later, she realized that her interior turmoil was invisible to those around her as they enjoyed their own beverages. My friend had the profound realization that we are clueless, mostly, to the suffering of those with whom we share space—in coffee shops, elevators, trains, planes and buses, restaurants and stores.  It's possible our co-worker across the aisle just had a bad breakup, or our neighbor just lost her job and has no idea how she's going to pay the rent. The man standing next to us on the escalator might be thinking about his schizophrenic son; the woman in line behind us at the grocery store might be overcome with fear about her husband's recurring cancer. We have no idea how many Eleanor Rigbys we encounter as we go about our daily lives.

Although sometimes we do. Even in those moments when we just have an inkling of the storm below the surface, we have an opportunity to practice compassion. My brother and I found out that our father had died when we returned to our hotel room following a visit to his bedside. We had left him resting peacefully, with a glimmer of hope that the immediate crisis had passed. Shortly after we left, however, he took his last breath.  These were the days before cell phones, so my mother had to wait until my brother and I got back to the hotel and saw her message on the hotel phone. We returned her call immediately. She didn't want to tell us he'd died on the phone, but we kept asking, and she finally confirmed our worse fears. We caught a taxi back across town to the hospital, my brother and I sobbing uncontrollably in the back of the cab. The driver asked what was wrong and we told him, embarrassed by our overt emotion, but helpless to contain it. I will never forget the kindness of that driver, an immigrant from Ethiopia. He drove as fast as he could so we could be with our parents – and then refused payment for the ride.

That driver knew how we felt because the emotions were so new and raw that we couldn't put our game faces on. This is rare.  For the most part, we don't give people an explicit reason to help us, with a smile, or a kind word or gesture -- anything that makes us feel less alone. 

So, what to do? Seems simple enough: we need to assume that all of us need those random acts of generosity, those casual expressions of kindness and support, the comfort of making eye contact and sharing a moment of human-to-human connection. We are all capable of helping, even if it's just putting some genuine warmth into the smile we offer our fellow passengers on the train. We don't need to be magical beings like Dragos and Pia to save the day.  Humans will do just fine.