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Oh, the pain I have seen.
I was on a panel yesterday with a man who had survived the atrocities in Syria. He spoke of the kaleidoscope of trauma his family, his friends, and he himself had endured. I stood helplessly at the threshold of the world he has known: an endless flood of images of violence and suffering.
I’m was overtaken with a sadness that has no name, a deep nausea.
Oh, the pain I have seen. How can we bear it?
I worked for many years as a paramedic. Sometimes, I was the first to arrive at the scene when someone had been shot in the street.
We were called once to a house where a gun had gone off during a domestic dispute. The victim’s brains were splattered across the wall, like spagetti. That was someone’s child, someone’s brother, someone’s father.
The pain I have seen. How can we open ourselves to it?
I had a Croatian patient who came to see me, who had been tortured in the war there. He walked bent over, with great difficulty. When he took off his shirt, I saw the deep scars, burns made with electricity. His bones had been fractured so frequently that his rib cage no longer had its original shape. He had difficulty breathing.
The pain I have seen. How can we contain our rage?
I can hardly allow myself to remember the little girl who came into St. George’s Hospital in London when I worked there. She was three years old. Her anus had been stretched as wide as a mason jar, from repeated gang rape. She had burn marks on her body from where her torturers had extinguished their cigarettes.
The pain I have seen. How can we let it in, and not “other it” away?
I see images on my television of countless black people in America shot by racist white police, guilty of nothing more than their skin pigment. I watched the murder of George Floyd enacted for eight and a half grizzly minutes on my screen. I hear that every day black people are afraid to just go outside and walk on the street, for fear of being guilty of just being.
The pain I have seen. I feel nauseated, helpless, overwhelmed.
My grandfather, Klaus, was part of the resistance in Nazi Germany. They caught him after the “July 20 plot” to assassinate Hitler. He was imprisoned, and then shot. His brother Dietrich was hung in a concentration camp.
My father took me back once to where they had lived in Berlin. I remember the smell of the house. “Look,” my father said to me. “There was the little bed where I slept. This is where I woke up one day and knew that my father was gone.” He never had a father again after that.
His mother, my grandmother, was widowed at forty. She never allowed herself to open her heart again to a man in that way.
The pain I have seen. It is not my pain. It is our pain. Collective pain. It is so huge. Who is going to feel it? Who is willing to feel it?
We don’t like to think about any of this. We call it “their pain,” and return to our protected bubbles of comfort.
I am a privileged white man, working as a doctor in Switzerland. And I have been buffered against pain for the most part. I had an idyllic childhood in the countryside around Munich.
But when I start to feel what we have done to each other, my throat closes. The tears well up, I feel silenced. I feel a rhythm emerging in my body, like a pulsing wave. It is more than pain, it is anger. I can understand why people rise up, why there are protests and sometimes even looting.
It has been four hundred years of oppression since slavery. From the slave patrols to the racist police, things have not changed that much.
The pain we have seen. How do we tolerate it for one more day?
What is it going to take to feel and heal this pain?
My Jewish friends still celebrate Passover every year. They are still mourning the terrible things their ancestors had to go through as slaves of the Egyptians. What will it take for us to feel and let go of the past we carry? I have no idea.
The pain we have caused each other. We know, deep down, that it must be healed. The trauma must be released.
I often ask myself, as a white privileged doctor, what I can do to release this pain that we carry together.
How can we be present in this pain without getting stuck in anger or paralysis? What will it take for us to get to a society where every life matters equally, no matter the pigment of the skin? No, that’s not right. The word is not “matters.” Where each life is valuable, sacred, cherished, adored.
Although I've been spared the brunt of this myself, whenever I have met this depth of pain, I see that it is only those who fully face it, and feel it, who somehow get free.
As a doctor, I have the opportunity to face this every day. I have learned that the best thing I can possibly do is to not close myself, but to keep my heart open, and to feel the agony when it comes to visit me. I’ve learned not to Band-Aid it, or smooth it out with some kind of new age therapy, but to remain open in the pain, together with the one who is hurting. Like this, sometimes I can provide a cradle for those who come to me in which the pain can be fully felt and released.
It takes time, it takes practice, and it takes the willingness to show up as the world you would like to see. But first, we have to be willing to tell the truth to ourselves that this pain is here to be healed.