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The Face of Human Suffering

May 08, 2015

The news reports in these past few weeks have been especially full of human heartache. From the earthquake in Nepal to the protests and violence in Baltimore to the immigrant victims who perish on their desperate journey to freedom and more, all of these events involve human lives that are deeply and indelibly impacted by tragedy and loss. I don’t believe I’m alone in often feeling that it’s all too much – I need to step away from seeing and hearing any more stories of human suffering.

Nepal Earthquake.jpgI have, however, watched the events surrounding the earthquake in Nepal unfold with a particular interest and deep sadness. This human tragedy has particular meaning for me as I have a personal connection with a Nepalese family with members living through the tragedy in Kathmandu. In fact, I am riveted to the news, to the stories of unimaginable human suffering and the loss of so much ancient heritage in this small struggling country rich in remarkable beauty, culture, and the strength that comes from centuries of perseverance.

I realize that this particular tragedy has found its way into my heart because I have a connection with individuals whose lives will be forever altered by the seismic tragedy in Nepal on April 25. I hear the stories of terror, of heartbreak, and of loss too great to measure that shadows the days and nights of people that I know and love. I ache for the nightmare that doesn’t change with the light of day.

Although we know that human suffering exists all around us, it seems that it is a human connection that increases our willingness and ability to allow that suffering to have meaning. When we connect a story and the face of someone we know and value to the suffering it takes on a profound and often urgent meaning.  And just as has been my experience in these past days, our human impulse is to take action, to find some way to make a difference, to, in some way, large or small, ease the suffering of this human before us.

My years of work with adult survivors of childhood sexual abuse has most certainly put a human face and a profoundly complex and meaningful story to the suffering that is the certain course for those whose childhoods have been altered by the betrayal sexual abuse. Those of us who are engaged in this work see the human face of suffering daily. The tragically sad and painful stories give meaning to the struggle: it matters, and we want to make a difference.

I realize that hearing about the struggle of adults who have been sexually abused as children is easily one more story of suffering that seems too hard to hear. And a well-protected story it is. Adult survivors rarely bear the outward scars of their injury. For this very reason many, or perhaps even most, folks do not put a face to the hard-to-fathom story of sexual abuse. In fact, in speaking publicly about the work we do at Shepherd’s, I often hear, “That’s so sad, but I don’t know anyone who has been sexually abused.”  Nothing could be further than the truth. Statistics (average 1 in 5) tell us that the human suffering of adults sexually abused in childhood is all around us every day in the face of the person next to you at work, on the bus, at the Mariner’s game, or even one of your closest friends.

All of this causes me to ponder this curious and mysterious power of human connection and how it is that it creates a pathway for us to join with others who suffer. It also causes me to wonder what it would be like if each of us knew that we could, in fact, put a face and a story to the heartbreak of adults who have lived the nightmare of childhood sexual abuse. Would we be willing to allow our hearts to open more, to be more aware, to offer more support to this astoundingly huge group of individuals who struggle silently?

For now it is enough to remember that just as humans from around the globe are coming together to tend to the devastation in Nepal and to aid in rebuilding efforts to restore life and beauty to this small country, there are humans who come together to hold the suffering of adult survivors and believe in the possibility of healing and restoration of vitality. In this great paradox of our human existence, as we dare to open our hearts to see the suffering of one another, we become a part of the healing process.

Janice Palm, M.A., LMHC

Executive Director, Shepherd's Counseling Services



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