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 — 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.

How Life is Like an MRI


Compacted into 30-minutes, having an MRI is an analogue for living. It took only one half hour in the machine to get a visual impression of my knee. There were no life threatening conditions. Just possible surgery due to wear and tear. Both words, literally.

I lay myself down on a movable platform. Imagine me as a cigar on my back, electronically slid into and out of a narrow, cylindrical enclosure. The magnets, on at all times, made a metallic, heartbeat-like racket; louder and arrhythmic when the machine got excited attempting to get a proper picture of the crucial body part: the kind of sound to make a person believe he was being fed into a meat grinder. I was given ear plugs which never fully killed the noise. The technician reminded me to be still, lest the exercise become worthless.

In the magnetic resonance imaging machine you enter a world of “booming, buzzing confusion,” as William James said. Is that any different from the world outside the hospital? You are on a very short assembly line. On it. Now you know something new: not what a factory worker knows, but the piece of metal or plastic on which he works before the product moves on to the next employee on the line. I had become a thing, objectified, like people we pass every day, unknown to us except by a few details. Just as we are unknown to them.

The cigar was left to mark the time. Nothing to read or notice. I’d been offered headphones and a choice of music, but experience informed me tunes couldn’t compete with the creature swallowing me. If one is a catastrophizing sort, here is a major opportunity to think the worst: “I won’t be able to be still, I’ll screw up the picture and therefore screw up the surgery and therefore screw up my life!” “I’ll sneeze or need to pee.” “One of the technicians will mess up.”

Or, if you prefer, you can take the 30-minutes and contemplate everything else wrong with your life or capable of going wrong. You are in any case, at the mercy of circumstances beyond controlling. Like life, again.

I did, in fact, have a foot cramp while on my back. The right foot, not the one in need of stasis. A few flexes calmed it down.

My left hand held a “panic button.” MRIs sometimes require the patient to live in the tube head-to-toe. I’ve had that done too and if your claustrophobic (I’m not) you need the panic button. The machine mimics how fate acts upon us. There are some things to which one can only submit. Fortunately, I took the event as an opportunity to meditate. Until, at least, I got the idea for this essay and thought about what to write. Make lemonade out of lemons, another life lesson.

Had I been upset, instead of panicking I could have reminded myself the hospital visit would soon be over. This too shall pass. My first time in the tube I remember thinking it might be an experience from which I’d learn something new and interesting. “This isn’t a misfortune, but a part of life.” If I lived a while back I’d have no remedies such as the knee surgery ahead. Psychologists call this “reframing.” Taking a new perspective on your situation.

In the big picture we are kind of like the cigar. On a conveyor belt that sometimes moves forward, sometimes in reverse, and makes no progress much of the time. We are dependent on the kindness of strangers — people like the two competent and kind ladies who took care of me. We move and are moved, not only as a matter of inches, feet, or miles, but in the emotional sense. The experience in the tube, like all experience, is time-limited.

The key, if you can find it in the “booming, buzzing confusion” of the world inside and outside your brain, is sometimes to relax. Control what you can, give in to the rest. Take the people around you for who they are, not objects, but folks made of the same stuff you are. We laugh, we cry, we struggle, and — if paying attention to what is important — we give some love, get some love, and do a little good.

Two out of three is a passing grade.

Enjoy the ride. However long, it is brief. So you better, in the words of Woody Guthrie, “take it easy, but take it.”

The top image is explained by the man whose brain was imaged, FastFission: “Made from an fMRI scan I had done. Goes from the top of my brain straight through to the bottom. That little dot that appears for a second on the upper-left hand side is a vitamin E pill they taped to the side of my head to make sure they didn’t accidentally swap the L-R orientation.” It comes from Wikimedia Commons.