Where Therapy Starts: Witnessing Another’s Suffering

I was reminded of a basic human need — a therapeutic need — in the middle of a boulevard. Recognizing another’s pain happens routinely in therapy, but this unfolded outside, in public, on a windy winter afternoon.

Imagine a wheelchair-bound, middle-aged black man. His clothing dark, his appearance unremarkable but for the machine he sat in. I hardly noticed him and he was not aware I was standing a few feet behind and to his right. We shared only the patience of waiting for the electronic sign to brighten and whiten β€” for the Michigan Avenue traffic to stop in Chicago’s downtown.

The walk signal came on and the red light turned green, permitting cars and pedestrians westward travel on Lake Street. Perhaps another second passed before a northbound SUV ran the red light in front of the chairbound man, within a few inches of the chairbound man. He’d just started to maneuver off the sidewalk. Had he owned a motorized device, a quick start would have put him in the SUV’s path. There was no hit and run, thank goodness.

Even from behind his upset was evident. The driver of the tall car must not have seen the artificially short man, diminished by his seated position. The near-victim of the near miss shouted something indistinct in a voice lacking force. He raised a left fist, impotent because it lacked a goal. The hand held only frustration and great sorrow. The vehicle was past him, the driver oblivious. People stepped into the street. No one recognized the close call, the tragedy averted, the remaining distress.

Not quite. My wife did and so did I.

I caught up to him in mid-Michigan Avenue, said I saw what happened. He described the event, needed to tell his story even though I gave my own report. The man related the brief tale twice. I mentioned I was glad he was safe and put my left hand on his right shoulder. He thanked me. The sitting soul needed to talk, needed someone to mark his words. All this in a few seconds, in the time required to cross the boulevard. The stranger wished me a pleasant weekend and again repeated thanks and his hope I’d have good fortune ahead. His speech carried some urgency and offered more gratitude than I expected.

What had I done? Nothing remarkable, but something necessary.

A man in a wheelchair is an easy target. Imagine his life. People are always passing by, speeding up, trying to get away. You have no stature. In a measuring world you are deficient. Your presence sets others to flight, instigates multiple small rejections. You are identified not by your human qualities but a machine; as an encumbrance, an obstacle to be negotiated, a thing. Does such a one feel helpless? This person appeared to. I could not climb down into his head, but I wondered later if the incident made him feel less of a man.

I deserve no special credit here. This is not about me. This is about humanity, our needs. On big city streets we are invisible or objectified, even the handsome and beautiful. But we are people, not furniture, not newspaper kiosks, not light poles. We suffer, we laugh. We create, we love. We live and die. All this is personal, treated as impersonal. In between the two sides of Michigan Avenue a man was witnessed. An anonymous individual became a person. Dignity returned to him in some small measure. At least that is what I imagine.

In giving the stranger my focus, perhaps I provided a bit of repair to someone who was otherwise not even an afterthought. Therapists do this in session. We validate and acknowledge; we listen, note the hurt and give it weight, meaning; extend a metaphorical helping hand, a meeting of the eyes, an affirmation.

Recovery often sounds complicated and often is. But remember too, life is full of simple things; simple but valuable things a therapist offers: everyday gestures that do not always happen every day.

We humans do not ask so very much.

The top photo is of Franklin Delano Roosevelt in a wheelchair. It is the work of jimbowen0306 and sourced from Wikimedia Commons.

26 thoughts on “Where Therapy Starts: Witnessing Another’s Suffering

  1. A simple “do unto others”… if only we all would, what a difference we would make.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Well stated. I wish more people in the world would be cognizant of other human’s needs. The world would certainly be a better place! Love reading your blog… thank you!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. An excellent example of human connection that provides incredible healing for the hurts and barbs we suffer and build up. These moments of invisibility chip away at the human soul and break down the human spirit and leave us depleted. I’m sure you would agree in this instance the truth found in the bible ‘there is more happiness in giving than in receiving’ where all parties have benefitted and experienced some restoration of peace of mind to all involved and a recognition that there is still a lot of good in this world 🌎.

    It’s good to know to that when my therapist is doing this for me that hopefully he is also benefitting from our sessions.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Indeed, Claire, we have some research to support that a person will feel better, say, if we give him some money and he buys a cup of coffee for someone else rather than himself. Therapists surely benefit if they are open, though it is also work. In the present instance, however, I did no work but was glad the gentleman was responsive and that I could respond.


  4. A beautiful human story, and well-told. Thank you.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Attending to people’s experience and listening deeply–these things are true gifts we can give to one another.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Thanks for commenting, La Quemada.


  7. Dr. Harvey Friedson

    Some years ago, my wife fainted on a weekday mid afternoon in downtown Chicago. As I kneeled beside her, I did not know what to do. Men and women in suits and expensive dresses walked around her, not breaking their stride. There was a Walgreens on the corner, but I was afraid to leave her on the street alone. This was before cellphones. Before I had a chance to formulate a plan, a man in work clothes provided a blanket, another provided something to rest her head, and another told me an ambulance was on its way, all in a matter of minutes. Working downtown I have witnessed other acts of anonymous kindness. I am always impressed by these acts.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Thanks, Harvey. It is good to hear from a recipient of such kindness. Clearly, as you indicate, it makes a considerable difference, especially when there is a physical injury.


  8. Well, that was an eye opening read for me. I never really considered, in and of itself, the value in simply being present for other people. In all my years of public school teaching/administration, I was always regretful that I didn’t have more training in counseling/therapy type skills. I always thought I sort of failed kids and parents b/c I didn’t do enough. Your piece, however, showed me that I actually did perhaps do some good along the way b/c I often simply listened attentively and respectfully to the stories of the kids and parents who came into my world. I didn’t always know what to say in response but I could sit with them and, as you say, witness their pain. I think it was especially important for the middle school kids that I made myself available to listen. I always made it a point to call students by their names around campus, to let them know that I could see them. Then, when they were struggling with some pain, they knew I could see them and maybe that was sometimes all they needed.

    So I am no longer in that role but I do like to really see people. I like to hear their stories. It sounds kind of superficial on my part to say that I didn’t see the value in simply being present for people but I think what I am saying there is that that’s what I grew up doing. There was no other way to be. That’s what parents can do for you. They can give you habits that serve you and others well even if you never stop to think about it.

    Your post does leave me wondering who sees ME.

    Liked by 2 people

    • I think I see you a bit, JT, at least to the extent that your thoughtfulness, self-reflection, and attempt to do good are present in your comments here. And, I’ll bet you did lots of good in school with the kids you described. Just knowing their names and treating them as individuals was something of value. I imagine you knew colleagues around you who didn’t. Sometimes simply our thoughtful and considerate presence is a contribution. Thanks, as always, for adding yourself to what we (that is you, me, the other commenters, and those who read the words expressed on this site) offer here.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Thank YOU for providing a space for such conversations to happen. These posts often make me think more about something that I didn’t even know I wanted to think about!
        I see that it’s cold in Chicago this weekend but I am grateful to report that we are getting a taste of spring this weekend. More rain coming next week but for now? sunny and 68 degrees Feels good!

        Liked by 2 people

    • JT, a simple smile from a stranger can go a long way. It means that you see me and acknowledge my existence. Sometimes, that’s all it takes to make it through a difficult day ❀

      Liked by 2 people

  9. “People stepped into the street. No one recognized the close call, the tragedy averted, the remaining distress.”
    ~ Close calls can be quite unnerving and even traumatic. I’m so glad that you and your wife were able to share his distress.
    ~ In our busy city streets, we find ourselves alone and invisible amidst the throngs of humanity.


  10. I have always, all my life been invisible – invisible needs, invisible emotions, invisible pain, invisible me, then I sat down in my therapist’s office and I wasn’t invisible anymore – and she just sat there and listened which was frustrating and hard for me to accept – because I wasn’t allowed to know in-depth details of her life, most of the time I just saw her as this lifeless mannequin I could talk at, not to – over time I have learned that I don’t need to know all her personal details – that it’s enough that she just sits there and sees me, despite everything that is going on in her life, her pain, her struggles, she puts it all aside just to see me – so you see Dr G you don’t really need to do anything, you just need to show the person they are not invisible – thank you Dr G for all you do and write about and share and help to colour in the blank spaces so we’re not invisible anymore and thank you JT, I might not have been one of your students but it would have made such a difference if I had been, you are seen

    Liked by 1 person

  11. Dr. Stein, what a wonderful story! If I may put myself in the mind of the other man, you validated his fear, the close call, and more. I had a serendipitous interaction at the grocery store a week ago I’d like to share. With the PTSD, it’s become more and more difficult to leave the house, but after acupuncture one evening, I stopped at a small grocery store I’ve liked before as a challenge to get out more. I was doing OK in the store, but I still was battling the exaggerated startle response and all the other fun aspects of PTSD. A woman was in front of the produce so I needed to wait till she was done. She apologized for the wait, and I said with a smile, “No problem, I’m disabled with PTSD, so I’m getting points by just being at the store.” πŸ™‚ She then volunteered that she, too, was diagnosed the same. We both shared how difficult it was grocery shopping or do *anything* with PTSD — and we laughed! For that 10 minutes, I knew *someone* understood how difficult just going to the store can be. That little boost helped me continue shopping … and not feel so alone. We, as people, can do so much for others just by sharing the human experience. πŸ™‚


    • Thanks for sharing this, Harry. It is often those who are suffering (whether in an emotional or an economic sense) who provide us with the best humanity can offer. I’d encourage you to keep shopping, but for the fact that a relatively recent President gave just this advice in response to a national emergency. πŸ˜‰


    • I, too, mastered the grocery store! Keeping going. Baby steps. You can always bail out…


  12. Thank you for voicing how important it is to just listen and acknowledge the pain. I am working towards my Psychiatric NP while working as an admitting nurse in a psychiatric hospital. I sometimes worry that my contribution is so small, when all I can really do is listen and acknowledge their pain. I have always hoped that by doing so, I am lightening their load in some way. Your description and explanations resonate deeply and help me to feel validated in my career choice. Thank You.


    • drgeraldstein

      Your are welcome, Reah. Sounds like you are making a contribution. Would that all of the world would do as much.


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