The Face of Kindness

In the book The Road Less Travelled, Scott Peck starts the book with the line: ‘Life is difficult.’ I recall my response to it was that ‘Life is challenging, not always difficult, indeed, sometimes, joyful, mystical and transcendent’. But is it not also a reflection of the reality of human living to say that ‘Everyone suffers.’ As children, we suffer harshness, irritability, aggression, violence, sexual abuse, comparisons, ‘put downs’, emotional abandonment, social ostracisation, bullying, passivity, injustice, being labelled, ignored, exiled, demeaned and lessened.  The responses to these sad experiences is to become fearful, depressed, withdrawn, delusional, illusional, perfectionistic, success and work addicted, addicted to substances, obsessional, compulsive, controlling, rebellious and passive. Unless resolved, we bring our defensive responses to suffering into our adulthood and, sadly, in turn bring suffering to others.

In the presence of suffering, nothing works except compassion. Nothing is effective in the presence of emotional pain except kindness and in the presence of fear nothing else can be offered except love. These are the only responses that create the possibility of healing the emotional wounds.

We cannot legislate for love, compassion and heart-rending. The legislation needs to emerge from the inside as a conscious experience of what suffering is. However, we don’t tend to see things as they are, we see them as we are. It is not what people say that we need to hear, but what they’re not saying. Similarly, it is not what people do we need to see, but what they don’t do. The hardest task is to be genuine, authentic, real and spontaneous. Sometimes, great emotional suffering makes us honest as does a life-threatening illness. It is sad that sometimes individuals need to go to such extremes – albeit unconsciously – before they can be real. It is the case that each time we are kind, gentle and encouraging, each time we try to understand, we provide the opportunity for new hope for those who are suffering and the possibility of finding new, real ways of living.

When it comes to considering the terrible suffering of the mother of the two murdered children in Ballycotton and those close to the children and women murdered in Newcastlewest, the hearts of most individuals are deeply touched and struggle to know what to do in the face of such terrible tragedies. Indeed, words cannot even remotely describe the unbearable suffering for the family members left to grieve the deceased. A numbing silence enveloped both communities, plainly showing and identifying with the suffering of the bereaved family members. This response is fitting; the family members’ suffering needs to be ours; their pain is ours; their fear and utter confusion is ours. When we feel this way we respond with compassion, kindness and love.

An even greater challenge is to find in our hearts kindness and compassion for the tortured fathers who perpetrated the murders and for their relatives who are left holding the awfulness of these men’s actions.

I have no doubt that individuals must be struggling with what can you do, how can you respond adequately to such unendurable suffering. I was asked what do you say to children who become aware of the terrible events or who know the children who were murdered. That key question indicated to me how individuals can feel so helpless in the face of another’s great suffering. With children we need to hold them tenderly and allow them express what they are feeling and thinking and to be honest in our responses to their questions. With the adults who have been so devastatingly bereaved, we can offer love, compassion, understanding and kindness, but these responses need to be extended into the future for there is no recovering from such losses. People need to be supported and listened to in learning to live with such intolerable sorrow. It is not a time for post-mortems, not a time to be asking the deep ‘why’ questions, not a time for judgement. In many ways, these questions need to occupy the minds and hearts of the healthcare professionals who were involved in the care of the two fathers who perpetrated the murders. This quest for understanding needs to be done by us in the caring professions with a recognition and compassion for our own suffering and the determination to learn from such terrible events.

The life quest of the Buddha was to put an end to suffering, but whilst suffering can be reduced, it can never end. Suffering is part of our nature; it brings attention to where love and kindness is absent and, at the same time, it draws attention to the need for the restoration of love and kindness. When children suffer and die because of the unresolved suffering of adults, it behoves all of us to practice loving kindness. 

Dr. Tony Humphreys practices as a clinical psychologist, is an author and national and international speaker. His book (with co-author Helen Ruddle), The Compassionate Intentions of Illness is relevant to this article.