AN ENCOUNTER WITH SUFFERING: A BRIDGE IN THE INTERACTIVE FIELD
“And the King shall answer and say unto them, Verily, I say unto you, Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me.”
What is the cost of ignoring poverty and suffering? If one takes a somewhat simplistic view and divides society into the “haves” and “have nots,” I want to address the impact of the encounter with extreme poverty on the privileged. It’s not that I’m insensitive to the plight of the poor, it’s that I belong to the relatively better off group myself and can write best about things I know.
There is ample historical evidence of the value placed on charitable giving by many, if not all, cultures. The word ‘charity’ itself comes from the Greek caritas, meaning brotherly love. Trattner (1974), in his review of the ancient and Judeo-Christian background of the American social welfare system, traces the origins of charity to its sources in antiquity. The Code of Hammurabi in ancient Babylonia discussed the importance of protecting the weak from the strong. In India, the Buddah taught that “all other forms of righteousness are not worth a sixteenth part of the emancipation of the heart through love and charity.” The Old Testament shifts the concept of helping the poor from one of charity to one of justice: it is an obligation to provide for the poor and infirm. Further, the poor have a right to receive and are obligated to take what is provided for them. Early Christianity, in a manner derived from its background in the Old Testament, identified a duty to give to the poor and the right of the needy to receive help.
A number of years ago I was in a research seminar. The final assignment was a group project that required completion of a phenomenological study, the goal of which was to demonstrate methods in qualitative research. The students in the group collectively decided to study the subjective experience of interaction between panhandlers and those who are panhandled (“panhandlees”). Each student audiotaped two interviews: one with a panhandler on the street and another with someone willing to discuss their subjective experience of being panhandled. We coded and analyzed the data, and wrote up our results. The findings suggested that begging is complex: behind the material, concrete request for spare change often lies a psychological, perhaps even spiritual, poverty which can be assuaged to a degree through the experience that others care. Underlying the survival orientation of the panhandlers interviewed there appeared to be an overwhelming sense of impoverishment. This poverty is not limited to a lack of basic life necessities but is related to a deficit in psychological connection and the experience of giving and receiving love and caring. In this sense, the poverty of emotional connectedness was most profound. In the face of such hardship, material supplies obtained from others in the form of spare change, even when minimal, appear to take on great symbolic importance. Being given to becomes, in a sense, a chance to experience a taste of “the milk of human kindness” in a world where the norm is hunger on both physical and emotional levels. These panhandlers were seeking not only money but also some form of connection with others in which they receive something of value. But what is the impact of this on the relatively more privileged panhandlees?
The panhandlers ask for alms and in that process create an existential situation in which they pit us “haves” against part of ourselves. Our own depletion, our fear of deterioration, our isolation, are reflected in this moment. Each time we are asked for “spare change” we confront, once again, the polarity between two possible approaches to suffering: on the one hand, compassion, the capacity of humans to care deeply about others and empathize with their pain, and on the other hand self- absorption and self-interest.
If we are fortunate enough to belong to the more privileged class, beggars on the street present us, in the moment we meet them, with mirror images of ourselves. Rather than the shiny, clean, professional or what have you images we may have of ourselves, we see in the “have nots,” the “other:” the unwanted, unkempt, dirty, smelly, humiliated self that so much of our lives are designed to obviate. Think about it: we rise in the morning and wash, thus being sure to rid ourselves of any sign of the dirt and smell associated with our animal inheritance. We dress, usually with some degree of thought about putting ourselves together so we look “presentable,” in a manner appropriate to whatever our station in life happens to be. Most of us go to an office, some of us work at home, but the vast majority are involved in some kind of activity and role within a system of interacting roles, the entire network of which helps us feel we are wired together, connected. Work, in important ways, helps us feel we are worth something. The “proof” of this, if there is such a thing, is that we get paid for what we do. The point is that, for many of us, our lives are organized to keep distant certain aspects of existence which are put in bold relief by the impoverished other.
I suspect that there is something deeper still about people keeping themselves separate from the experience of the panhandlers. Besides discomfort, vulnerability, and insecurity, to be a “have not” is to experience being dependent. The panhandler is, in effect, saying to the world, “I am unable to care for myself the way you do, in the manner that the ‘adult world’ has laid out as the normal, expectable manner of independent living. I need your generosity to be able to eat and to survive.” Most of us want to believe we can care for ourselves and that we can function according to what is expected of us in the adult world. We spent the earliest years of our lives being dependent and suffering the terror and vulnerability that so often, even in the best of situations, goes along with that. Perhaps related to this is the experience of “otherness” and, from a psychological perspective, the overwhelming anxiety associated with the dreaded other. Harry Stack Sullivan, the eminent American psychiatrist, identified this in his description of the “not me” aspect of the self system (Sullivan, 1953). There are three parts to what Sullivan called the self-system, that function of the psyche that tries to maintain equilibrium in the face of anxiety. ‘Good me’ is the personification associated with the infant’s sense of being approved of, loved, and treated with tenderness by the mothering person. ‘Bad me’ is the personification associated with the infant’s sense of being disapproved of, doing the “wrong” thing. ‘Not me’ is the personification linked to the area of dread, anxiety that is overwhelming to a degree that it is pushed out of awareness or dissociated. It is this personification that comes to contain the most intense anxiety laden contents, what Sullivan called “uncanny emotion.” I think that the experience of the encounter with the “other” in the form of the adult living on the street begging for money can be thought of as symbolizing, in projected form, the ‘not me’ part of the self. Let me illustrate this through recounting a recent experience which can be used to explore some of these ideas. The example chosen is not one in which I was panhandled but it was compelling and brings forth, in bold relief, some of the interpersonal and intrapersonal dimensions of the encounter between the haves and have nots.
One day I boarded the bus in San Francisco, returning to my office after having had lunch downtown with a friend. I sat down and immediately heard crying – a painful, mournful sound, more of a wail than a cry – which registered in my mind as a baby in distress. I looked around and saw no baby, however I did see a person whom I will describe presently and my senses located the sound as related to her.
Only her eyes, covered by huge wraparound sunglasses, were not sheathed in old clothing and rags. A black dress covered her body down to the calves, which were also covered, in long socks and decrepit shoes. She wore long, thick, white gloves. I wasn’t sure if she was a woman – but I think she was. “She” was both ageless and sexless. She sat with a shopping basket between her legs, not the kind one uses at the supermarket but the smaller, folding variety. A paper shopping bag lay by her side. At first, it seemed to me the crying came from the bag.
The sound was loud but no one on the bus moved or showed any response to this scene. They seemed to look away purposively, as if contact would somehow risk them becoming involved with this bizarre, unknown situation. I was struck with a dilemma. I found myself thinking: “Someone needs to do something here. I can’t just go on and ignore this. I’m a social worker. The crying could be a baby.” The thought crossed my mind that this bizarre stranger might have been carrying an infant in that bag on the seat. My anxiety rose and my mind raced: How could I approach her? Would my approach provoke her? What if she attacked me? Did she have a gun? Meanwhile, the wailing continued. Then I realized that it was not coming from the bag and that it was not a baby crying at all. This intensely mournful crying was hers.
I got up and took the few steps toward her, stood next to her, and leaned down to ask what was wrong. She continued to wail. I asked again, perhaps twice. Minutes passed. The crying decreased in intensity. I stayed still. She reached into her bag and pulled out a crumpled piece of paper with one of her gloved hands, and gave it to me. I sat down in the empty seat across from her and read it.
The note, written in inked block letters, was disorganized and rambling. The contents were rambling ruminations filled with self-recrimination of the most intense sort. In paraphrase, it read, “I am a cockroach on a filthy toilet bowl. My life is disgusting and so am I. I do not deserve to live. No one cares about me. I am so terribly alone in this world. This life is a horror.” I sat with it in my hand for a couple of minutes, thinking, taking in what I could of this vista into the stranger’s subjectivity. It was then that I noticed the entire shopping cart was lined with paper covered with her writing. I was unable to read much of it but the little I could decipher seemed to be in the same self- loathing vein. I handed her note back to her.
I had become involved with someone who embodied the essence of the “other,” alien in so many respects, who had engaged with me in a most intimate manner. I found myself bearing witness to her suffering in a way that somehow penetrated the layers of her clothing and the boundaries of my existence.
Now I understood in the moment and at a more intense level, something about why people are reluctant to get involved: I did not know what to do. How could I respond to her? What was right? Should I leave it at this or did I need to do something for her . . . and for me. The only thing I could think of was to respond in kind. I decided to write back.
Tearing off a piece of paper from a newspaper in my hand, I took my pen out of my shirt pocket and wrote to her: “I am so sorry for your pain and loneliness. It must hurt terribly. May God be with you and bless you.” My note was a totally uncharacteristic thing for me to write. It was the first time I ever told anyone anything about being comforted by God. Later, in reflecting on what was at first a feeling of embarrassment about having written to her about God blessing her, I thought that it was appropriate and perhaps necessary to call to a higher power to help since I felt so limited, even impotent, in the situation. The depth of her alienation and pain needed to be met by an equally deep capacity for love and compassion. Maybe it was some other power speaking through me at that moment. It was certainly a form of archetypal experience, as if I became gripped in that instant by something larger than myself. Somehow I knew the pain in this person was so great, and the isolation so overwhelming, that it needed to be met by something much more encompassing than what any mortal could provide. Perhaps I knew that the only force in the universe that could ease her pain was a supernatural and unbounded loving one.
She read my note furtively after I handed it to her. The crying, which had been decreasing in intensity, turned into sniffles, and then she was calm. We never spoke. The bus continued down Geary Boulevard, rocking us all back and forth. I looked at her, wondering if behind the dark glasses she was looking back at me. It was impossible to tell.
A few minutes later my stop approached and I got up to exit the bus. Thoughts ran through my mind that she might be provoked by my note, or by my leaving – that she could even turn on me and attack. Of course, no such thing happened. As I got off the bus, I felt that I had just had one of the more transcendent experiences of my life. I watched her through the window as the bus pulled away.
The encounter brought forth a reaction I simply could not ignore. Maybe it was the quality of the cry, its intensity or its primordial nature. After all, this woman sounded like a helpless baby. Perhaps it was more that her suffering was not kept private, not confined. These cries came out of her, flooding the space, and permeating me. Maybe it was something about my own history of alienation and isolation that she tapped into, my own all-too-human experience of feeling rejected, alone, and abandoned.
I think this experience has something important to say about the hidden dimensions of the interactive field between the “haves” and “have nots.” It shows the awkwardness, how the interaction is without definite rules and roles, and so more apt to generate anxiety. It was intrusive since in my mostly well organized world I do not seek out experiences with impoverished, psychotic strangers. It also illustrates how the plight of the sufferer contains projected elements of the experience of the more “fortunate” among us. The cry of the bus lady pierced me because it was, in a sense, my cry. It was, in this way, thoroughly compelling.
Could I have ignored her? I suppose so. That is, after all, what the other people on the bus did. Initially, it was my impulse too, since I did not want to get involved. By doing so I entered a situation with a myriad of dangers that flooded my mind.
I think, however, if I had not responded to this woman on the bus I would have risked losing contact with a part of myself she was showing me. From analytical psychology, we know that the path toward greater wholeness, the individuation process, involves the discovery and integration of the opposite, of the unconscious counterpart of the accentuated aspect of consciousness. In the case of the poor, the shadow of the “haves,” needed for wholeness, is contained in the image of the “have nots.” Holding the counterbalancing side of the psyche can be seen as the gift of the “have nots.” Even more than this, though, is that we “haves” are elevated by the exercise of compassion and diminished by selfishness. We are each capable of relating to beggars as if they were invisible. However, in choosing a caring orientation toward the less fortunate we not only serve ourselves but also contribute at least a bit so the world tilts a little more toward love rather than indifference.
The bus lady’s pain summoned a common bond that links us together and was literally crying out for attention. It challenged the anonymity of modern urban life and drew the two of us into an intimate encounter that bridged two worlds. To ignore that connection is to lose all, and sink cynically into self-absorption and isolation. To respond to it, to risk engagement, is to reaffirm for ourselves and others our basic humanity and intrinsic connectedness.
Sullivan, H. S. (1953). The Interpersonal Theory of Psychiatry. New York: W.W. Norton & Company.
Trattner, W. I. (1974). From Poor Law to Welfare State: A History of Social Welfare in America. New York: The Free Press.
Steve Zemmelman, Ph.D.
2142 Sutter Street, Suite 4
San Francisco, CA 94115
August 18, 2003