Help America Heal Itself

10/10/2011 08:37 am ET | Updated Dec 07, 2011

Collectively, we've been through a lot in the last 10 years. The decade's pain began with the wound of 9/11, which shook our confidence in our relationship to the rest of the world, in our sense of power and our desire to be on good terms with others.

The crash of 2008 hurt us differently, but just as profoundly. More inward in nature, it generated doubt and insecurity. People from the highest levels of our society were implicated, from a president's wild encouragement of the "American dream" of home ownership, to huge corporations indulging in bizarre bets (known as insurance) with money we all had on deposit. Now the pain -- foreclosures, recession, unemployment -- continues, with added uncertainty beyond our shores.

We have been hurt. Of course, when we are hurt we first cry for someone to "fix it." Stop the hemorrhage, do the surgery, give us the crutches so we can get back on our feet. But what if it's not that kind of injury? What if the damage is serious, and the recovery is long and continues painful? What if the loss cannot be completely restored? Then anger, grief, discouragement, despair set in.

Politicians exploit the anger, arguing over what will and won't "fix it." Experts try to explain what happened. Salves are offered to prevent more damage -- unemployment extensions, mortgage refinance. A few brave souls are seeking justice, trying to hold the worst offenders accountable. Yet, this isn't relieving the pain.

We actually know a good deal about pain and grief after injury and loss. We know, for example, that explanations and arguments do not heal pain. Think of your personal life: When you are badly hurt by someone close to you, it doesn't help to hear the other person justify their behavior. An understanding of "why" can soften the edge of your anger, but the pain -- the emotional devastation -- is still there. This is because explanations operate in a completely different order of reality from that of pain, grief and loss, which do not belong to the rational order of things.

Some say that only time will heal the injury -- "time heals all wounds." That's partially true; our physical and emotional systems are quite resilient with amazing self-healing powers. But while we are healing, we are still quite fragile, and if the wound is re-opened, healing can take a very long time. What is it like for the person who wakes up each day to yet another job search, with no end in sight? Or another week of living with relatives, feeling shame at his loss of independence? Or for all of us, when we continue to see that those with the will to act do not have the power, and those who have the power do not have the will -- if only out of their own fears of more loss? Collectively speaking, our wounds are reopened every day.

Seeking justice against perpetrators can sustain hope for an end, but by itself it does not heal pain. In addition, justice is often partial and long in coming. Its greatest virtue for those still suffering is that they can see that society is on their side.

That's the clue: Someone is on your side.

Knowing that someone is consciously and intentionally sharing your pain actually does speed healing and strengthen resilience. This is called compassion -- which at its root, com-passion, means "feeling together" -- and it makes an enormous difference in recovery from grief and loss.

We can use this knowledge in our collective life, every day.

"Recovery is sluggish," as we keep hearing, and we cannot expect a magic bullet. No surgery or injection is available. But we can listen to those who are suffering, comfort those who are despairing and remind one another of what we share. We do this around physical disasters and death, like hurricanes and 9/11. We need to extend further now, reaching out to one another in areas that are less obvious, more subtle, more delicate.

Do you know a neighbor struggling with possible foreclosure or out of a job? Offer to go out for coffee, not to solve the problem, just to listen.

Is a friend on Facebook sounding stressed? Use the telephone instead of the "wall."

Are people at your workplace stressed and angry at the system? Set aside a time every two weeks just to listen to one another -- no advice, no plans for revolution or mutiny, just hearing and sharing the pain.

On a larger scale, think about where you want your effort and money to go. Lots of politicians and political groups are asking for help. Is that an investment in compassion or contentiousness?

Consider helping those whose primary investment is compassion: counseling services, social service agencies, chaplaincy programs, schools and after-school programs, community centers; and churches, synagogues, mosques, sanghas, other religious and humanist organizations that you know bring people together to be good to each other.

As we focus on healing ourselves and our communities, eventually the big picture will change for the better. Meanwhile, the place we can be sure to make a difference is in each other's lives.

Tamar Frankiel, Ph.D., is Dean of Academic Affairs and Professor of Comparative Religion for Academy for Jewish Religion, California, which is affiliated with Claremont Lincoln University. AJRCA has the only graduate program in Jewish chaplaincy on the West Coast.