Cutting my finger making dinner, I then sit down to dinner and tell my partner: “I was listening to music, not paying enough attention while I was chopping, and look what happened?”
I show my wound. I tell my story. I expect sympathy.
Chopping my finger is a small thing. If the suffering is greater, I am likely to spend longer and have more difficulty narrating a story about what happened. As I struggle through that process, I will be asking my listener—either implicitly or explicitly—to sympathize and, if possible, empathize.
The difference between sympathy and empathy is often overlooked. Roughly: when we sympathize, we feel for another person, and when we empathize, we feel with another person.
The degree to which we can empathize with another person’s suffering seems to be limited by, among other things, how well we can understand their suffering from their point of view. To empathize we must not only understand that someone is suffering, but what it is like for that person to suffer. One benefit of telling stories of our suffering, then, is that it gives us the opportunity to communicate our suffering from our point of view. That can enable empathy and not just sympathy: we can then feel with, and not just for, each other.
Empathy is important. It can create positive feelings of togetherness and bonding, even in difficult times. It can defuse conflicts and facilitate improved communication and co-operative problem-solving. Arguably, it is also an important component of general psychological health and well-being.
Empathy is only one benefit of the deeper and richer understanding that sharing stories of suffering makes possible. A relatively new approach to medicine, narrative medicine, emphasizes the important benefits of story-telling for medical practice.
One leader in this emerging field is Rita Charon. In her work on narrative medicine, Charon has developed the idea of narrative competence: “…the ability to acknowledge, absorb, interpret, and act on the stories and plights of others.” Charon then understands narrative medicine as an approach to medical practice that makes heavy use of narrative competence. A narrative medicine approach encourages physicians to focus on the stories that people tell about themselves and their conditions to interact, research, diagnose, and treat.
Sometimes it takes a lot of work to understand the suffering that someone else is going through. Charon, and others who favor a narrative medicine approach, encourage physicians to study the humanities—and especially literature—to build their skills in absorbing and interpreting the stories they hear.
The importance of narrative competence, however, is not limited to physicians. The empathy and understanding that narrative competence makes possible can be important for being a good partner, friend, family member, or—even—citizen. That makes developing narrative competence a skill worth developing, no matter your occupation. And, as for physicians, it can sometimes take a lot of work to understand the suffering that someone else is going through.
Instead of working to understand the stories of others, it is often easier to focus only on our own story—but telling our own stories of suffering can itself be difficult. Some suffering experiences are difficult to narrate, difficult to shrink into a story.
Why did this happen? How did this happen? What does this mean?
For some types of suffering, these questions are difficult to answer. Answering them, however, is often a part of being able to cope. In our need to come up with answers, we may settle on narratives that are implausible and even harmful. In our struggle to tell a coherent story about our suffering we may become superstitious, catastrophize, place inappropriate blame, or feel unnecessary guilt.
In short, both coherently telling our stories of suffering and competently listening to the stories of others can be difficult. But both are skills that are well-worth developing.
The importance of these skills was highlighted for me yesterday in Scotland.
On September 18th, Scotland voted “No” in the independence referendum. Though many in Scotland and in the rest of the United Kingdom are celebrating this result, many of my friends in Scotland’s Glasgow are suffering from bitter disappointment and disillusionment. More than one supporter of independence told me yesterday that it feels like a death. Many are grief-stricken.
Yesterday, on the day after the vote, among friends across social media, in the streets, pubs, and at parties, people around me were beginning to narrate their suffering. They struggle to answer questions about how, why, and what happened, what it means for the country, what it means for them, and how they can move forward. Telling a story that they can live with will, for many, undoubtedly take time. In the meantime, people struggling to narrate have sometimes lashed out; becoming superstitious, catastrophizing, placing inappropriate blame, and feeling unnecessarily guilty. These missteps evidence, I think, that narrating suffering is difficult.
The suffering stories being told in Scotland are also stretching the narrative competence of many. If the result is one you wanted, it may be difficult to understand the suffering that some people are going through. If you were apathetic, it may be even harder. Perhaps surprisingly, challenges for narrative competence are also presented to those who didn’t get the wanted result: swamped in suffering, they may be completely unable to understand the stories that others are telling. This is actually a common challenge: when we suffer, it can be difficult to understand the situation from any one else’s point of view.
As in medical practice, however, creating and comprehending the suffering narratives related to Scotland’s referendum is a worthy exercise. Telling our stories can help us to heal, to cope, and to move forward. Perhaps most importantly in the coming months, competently listening to each other’s stories can facilitate empathy—and the benefits for problem-solving and cooperation that empathy brings. In Scotland, I hope people can share, listen, come up with stories they can live with, and figure out together the best way to move forward.
Whoever and wherever we are, we narrate our suffering. The stories of our suffering can enable us to understand and empathize with each other. If we are lucky, we are surrounded by at least some people with narrative competence; people in our lives who can understand and empathize with our particular suffering experience, whatever it might be.
I hope that we continue to get better at telling and understanding our stories of suffering: here in Scotland during this momentous time, in medical practice as the narrative medicine approach gains momentum, and in general.