How do you relate to suffering in others?

Find out with this simple exercise.

It’s an exercise that could be applied to any type of suffering – but here we will use the example of asylum seekers.

After you have done the exercise there is some analysis and then you will be given a ‘golden key’ and a ‘wonderful truth’.

Most recently I did this exercise in a training I gave to some newly appointed guards at Campsfield House Immigration Removal Centre. It seemed to have a powerful effect (and credit to them that they allowed it to). So I have decided to make it more public here.

If you want to do the exercise you need to set aside at least 5 minutes to do the first part before you read the analysis – don’t skimp this or it wont be so powerful.

So here is how it goes:

Have a look at the following two pictures of boat people. Let’s assume they are people trying to get into this country (many do). As you look at the pictures track all your own feelings and thoughts. Be honest with yourself. Nothing is right or wrong here, this is just your internal process.

Observe whatever you are thinking and feeling.

You could have a whole range of responses or reactions…



So, now, before you read on write down what happened when you looked at the pictures. Again, be honest, no-one else need ever know.

So here is the analysis:

There are only really two ways of reacting to suffering in another person.

A. Defensively and unempathically:



B. Expansively and empathically:

Angelina Jolie with some Somalian asylum seekers.

It is like a switch inside us with only two positions. I reckon pretty much all of us are capable of having the switch in either position – I certainly am. Defensive, or expansive. Sometimes the switch can move backwards and forwards several times in a single minute.

Perhaps, if you were really honest with yourself, you may have noticed some of the defensive reactions. If you didn’t see any in yourself then you could be a modern day saint!

…Or, it might mean that it could be helpful to look a bit deeper into this side of yourself.

But make sure you do it in a kindly way.

So lets have a look now at the two types of reactions beginning with the defensive orientation and then I will give you the ‘golden key‘ and the ‘wonderful truth

The Defensive orientation

This can be described by 7 ‘D’s:

• Denial– e.g. Switching off, ignoring, falling asleep, being inactive, being uninterested. (Did you really spend 5 minutes looking at the picture or did you move on before. Did you write them down? Be honest! We don’t like to focus on suffering and will use all kinds of excuses not to.)

• Disbelief– e.g. Asylum seekers fabricate their stories- they are just manipulating the system. Their stories are unbelievable- it cant be this bad. Surely there was something else they could do?

• Disassociation e.g. This isn’t my problem- they aren’t from this country. Charity begins (and ends) at home.

• Disempowerment– e.g. there isn’t anything I can do. I’m just a drop in the ocean. (Mother Teresa when accused of being ‘just a drop in the ocean’ responded that the ocean is made up of drops).

• Distortion of internal feelings– e.g. feeling angry rather than guilty. Bruno Bettleheim, who was in a concentration camp has written about this. He watched the Nazi guard reactions to Jews queueing to ask for a day off because of ill health. Those that pleaded were rarely given a day off whereas those that were more matter of fact sometimes got some mercy. His analysis was that the ones that pleaded made the guards feel guilty – but they didn’t want to feel guilty so they smothered this feeling by being angry at its cause instead. We have to be really careful with guilt. If you felt guilty looking at the pictures then be careful that it doesn’t overwhelm you into doing nothing, or worse…

• Distrust– e.g. if I open up to this person’s suffering and try to help them they might manipulate me, exploit me, take me for granted.

• Defamation (also scape-goating) e.g. asylum seekers are scroungers, greedy, lazy, dependent, unskilled, dishonest, criminals, terrorists etc. Scapegoating is an ancient practice said to come from the Greeks. At regular intervals the villagers would round up, find a goat, give the goat all their difficult feelings and then either kill it or chase it out of the community. Everyone got to feel better (for a bit), except, of course, the goat.

So what about the expansive orientation?

This is characterised by a lovely African word that does not have a direct translation into Engish:


which roughly translated means ‘your problem is my problem’. Someone with Ubuntu is deeply concerned for the welfare of others and identified with the community as a whole in its widest possible sense. They see that humans are all the same species and inter-related – whichever part of the planet we come from. They see that none of us own the planet, or any part of it, and that we need to share it with each other and the plants and animals.

They see this man or woman from another country who has is suffering after travelling many miles on a boat as ‘my brother or sister’…

Perhaps you will have accessed some version of this orientation too, in the mix, when you contemplated the pictures.

Don’t worry if you didn’t though – it’s easy to block it out (for reasons we are coming to).

Also don’t worry if you didn’t have the pure feeling just described (this is very rare in my experience – mostly we have a range of feelings and thoughts and our motivations are almost never ‘pure’ – but we need to make sure this realisation doesn’t disable us.)

So what do we need to do to access the more expansive orientation?

This is where we need:

The ‘Golden Key’?


which is…

To Care.

    That’s all.

    …Simple really. Caring is what moves the switch into the expansive position. This isn’t just a tautology – it’s about a simple act of will.

    Simple doesnt mean easy of course. It can be hard to find, or keep, the key.

    To do this we need to recognise our fears and get beyond them:

    We defend against other people’s pain because we are frightened of letting in any pain. Perhaps it might remind us of our own..

    Other people’s suffering is also ‘the unknown’ and we are frightened of letting this in because our egos fear the unknown. They want to keep us in ‘the known’ (what we are used to). This is ‘the known’ that has helped us to survive until now – though we may not be that happy. Our egos think it is safer hang on to ‘the known’, even if it means keeping us closed and defensive, as a matter of survival. For more on this and the act of will mentioned above see: ‘The seven arrows teaching’, also on this site.

    And the ‘wonderful truth’?



    By opening to the pain in others we end up feeling:

    less alone,
    less empty,
    less needy,
    more purposeful,
    and better resourced to live fully and joyously in community!

    May you too experience that joy and relief!

    (And do, please, pass this exercise on if you think it has helped.)


11 thoughts on “How do you relate to suffering in others?

  1. The frightening thing is that as these refugee population shifts take place war and famine having ruined their own countries will place such pressure on the reducing agricultural land that those with these remaining resources will find their own resources stretched to the limit and that will be the ultimate test as to whether the need for their own survival exceeds their willingness to share. Those who are sympathetic now will be put to the test at that time.

    • Thanks for your interesting comment. At the moment of course developed countries take far few refugees than the rest of the world and those that we do take are only a small proportion of immigrants. Personally I think there is room for a lot more refugees before it has much of an impact on our standard of living (as they are only a tiny proportion of our total population). This doesn’t mean it will happen of course – first we have to start thinking about them as family and mostly we are a long way off that……

  2. This is a well thought out exercise crammed with truths – almost a sermon. Thank you. I never wavered from the empathy camp BUT am hopeless because I don’t do much, if anything, with my empathy. I hate to think where that puts me – some kid of castrated bystander? Even now I’m not sure how to climb out of my cocooned life to do something about those with whom I empathize., whether my sister, the homeless of Austin, asylum seekers, the Aids infested poor of Africa, or the beggar at the intersection at the end of the street..

  3. Thanks for your admission, Jane. It sounds like your defence then is blaming yourself for not doing enough! I know that one well for myself – it can be a painful but absorbing defence against acting (sic). A kind of self-flagellation that leads nowhere – but takes loads of focus. Solution: start by being kind to yourself . Once you start being more accepting of yourself other actions will follow. And actually you do do loads of stuff (I know this to be true for you).

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