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When the phone rang just before the Christmas holidays, the voice on the other end was so tiny I almost didn't recognize it as belonging to Toni, my former college roommate. "What's wrong?" I asked. Toni and I don't speak often and we see each other even less. Different cities, different lives. But I knew trouble when I heard it. "I have cancer," she said.
Worse, it was a recurrence of the breast cancer she'd been treated for 10 years earlier, which had now spread to her stomach and ribs. She was calling from home -- she's unmarried and lives alone -- and was wobbly after her first three rounds of chemo. I listened. When I hung up, I immediately called the airline and made a reservation. Next I called my husband at work to let him know that we'd have to cancel our weekend plans. Then I called Toni back to say that I was coming that very weekend. "I'm not dying yet," she protested. "All the better," I told her.
Over the next two days, I consumed everything I could about breast cancer -- I questioned friends, searched the Internet, read up on the latest studies and treatments. One minute I felt frantic and desperate (Is she going to die?); the next, feisty and indignant (Why didn't she get a second opinion? Is her oncologist the best available?). Finally, a wise friend calmed me down. "You don't have to learn everything about cancer in two days," she told me. "Just go there and hang out with her. Watch TV. Above all, just listen."
So that's what I did. Toni and I cooked a brisket together (squaring off in our usual way over whether to caramelize the onions first or just dump them on top). I helped her choose a wig and some caps and berets from a catalog. We looked through piles of old photographs and laughed about the people we'd known and the people we'd been. We didn't talk about cancer treatments and second opinions, not really.
One night Toni asked me if I believed in heaven. I talked (a little) but listened more. The next day I came down with a terrible cold and arranged to leave earlier than planned, fearful about exposing her to a single rogue germ. "No, no," she objected. "This is the nicest thing anyone has ever done for me." Did I restore her thick, wavy hair? Did I beat back her cancer? No. I simply gave what was in my power to give -- some small measure of comfort.
If adult life -- with its downturns, losses, and setbacks -- teaches us anything, it's that the need for comfort is crucial and ongoing. It's not only for the boldface crises that top the life-stress charts (illness, death, divorce), but also for life's middling traumas (your kid doesn't make it into Harvard) and minor disappointments (your best friend isn't visiting from Alaska this summer). Of course, the downturns and setbacks don't need to be our own for us to feel the loss and the need to be assuaged.
Even if you didn't know someone who was directly affected by the World Trade Center attack, it was hard not to cry watching the television coverage -- seeing a tear fall down the brave, stone-faced cheek of a firefighter, watching a stalwart family member struggle for composure in the face of overwhelming, unbearable grief. "There's nothing more important or more intimate than giving and receiving comfort," says Malka Drucker, a rabbi in Santa Fe, New Mexico, and author of White Fire: A Portrait of Women Spiritual Leaders in America. "For this we need intuition, the invisible path to another's heart."
Which is better for our health and fulfillment -- to give comfort or to receive it? It's well established that comfort has health benefits for those on the receiving end, but people involved in comforting professions, like nurses and nuns, have long reported a feeling of euphoria from their work. This "helpers' high" may have a basis in brain chemistry, according to recent research at the National Institutes of Health. "When we exercise compassion, the brain releases endorphins, which blunt nerve endings and give a sense of peace and tranquility," says Stephen G. Post, PhD, professor of bioethics at Case Western Reserve University School of Medicine in Cleveland, Ohio.
Children as young as 2 will respond empathically to another person's distress -- kissing a whimpering friend's cheek or saying to an adult, "Don't cry." But that instinct often gets lost in the self-consciousness of adulthood. Although we still remember how to spontaneously comfort the kids in our lives with a warm hug, soothing words, a favorite toy, or a lap to hide in, with peers we often become paralyzed and uncomfortable, uncertain what to say or do, sometimes even where to look.
I once sat at a dinner table with a group of friends, when one of the women, newly divorced, said matter-of-factly that when her ex-husband left her for another woman it had felt "like a death." Another friend at the table began to sob; her husband had been killed in a car accident 15 years earlier. We all sat there, speechless and squirming, until the waiter came to take our order. The moment to say something soothing and meaningful was lost.
While some people are intuitively gifted at saying and doing exactly the right thing at the right moment, the rest of us can learn how. "Comfort boils down to empathy and acknowledgment," says New York City-based psychotherapist Jane Greer, PhD, author of Gridlock: Finding the Courage to Move on in Love, Work, and Life. Acknowledgment, in fact, is so powerful that it doesn't require the gloss of eloquence. "When someone affirms what you are feeling and conveys an understanding of your distress, their sensitivity helps you feel safe and understood," says Dr. Greer. When you offer to bring a sick friend a cup of hot soup, stop by to change the bedsheets, or send a bouquet of flowers with a warm note, you put acknowledgment into action.
Comfort that doesn't include that crucial element of acknowledgment seems emotionally tone-deaf. "It's a good thing that she didn't suffer longer," someone said when my mother died at 73 of Parkinson's disease. That might have been the appropriate response to a survivor relieved to see a loved one's suffering end, but it didn't feel comforting to me. At that moment, I felt it was horrible that she died at all. We can be equally off-key when we hear a person's distress as an invitation to commiserate with our own tales of woe. Who isn't occasionally guilty of this? In retrospect, I could have kicked myself when I replayed in my head a conversation with a friend who called to update me about her mother's illness and I wound up telling her, at great length, about my own mother's hospitalization six years earlier. A brief mention is fine, but only if you stay focused on your friend's problem. How can we so not get it?
The problem is, how much compassion we have for others is sometimes driven by the degree of compassion we have for ourselves -- and, let's face it, most of us are pretty tough on ourselves. "If you're stoic and you have a stiff upper lip, it could be hard to muster up the empathy and compassion for someone else's plight," says Dr. Greer. That was the case with a woman I know who'd been having problems with her boss. When she told her boyfriend that she feared being fired, he said, "What's the big deal? You'll call the headhunters and find another job." He didn't stop to acknowledge her wounded self-esteem, her fear of change, or her financial concerns -- that is, all the fallout that comes from your job's being imperiled.
There does tend to be a gender divide when it comes to giving -- as well as receiving -- comfort. According to Marianne Legato, MD, founder of the Partnership for Gender-Specific Medicine at Columbia University, in New York City, men will often hunker down in solitude rather than reveal a need for comfort; they're also less skilled at soothing others: "A man will focus on solving the problem. He'll give you directions to accomplishing whatever goal he thinks you should be achieving," she says.
On the other hand, women tend to be much better at offering a sympathetic ear and a shoulder to cry on. Women are not necessarily good, however, at allowing themselves to be comforted. Many of us have become so hyperefficient at juggling the demands of work and family that we've lost the art of being tended to. And we feel ashamed to even need tending. "Accepting comfort is like accepting a gift, but that can stir up feelings of helplessness and vulnerability in some of us," says Dr. Greer. "We think that by saying 'I don't need it' we can make ourselves feel stronger."
But we can all do better at giving and receiving comfort. Comfort is often rooted in the flesh: Just a hug or the touch of a hand causes our brains to release the chemical serotonin, which improves mood. Remember, too, the healing power of words. The right words -- whether they are spoken in our church or synagogue, or come to us via Chicken Soup for the Soul stories or public oratory -- have the power to soothe the spirit and revive the heart. Just think of former New York City mayor Rudolph Giuliani's heartfelt acknowledgment that the September 11th losses were "more than we can bear."
If you're the one in need of comfort, wisdom lies in knowing where to find it. "When things are really terrible, you need people who will affirm whatever you're feeling," says Dr. Legato. "Sit down with a friend or relative and ask if they have time to hear you discuss a problem and help you with it. You can't do it in five minutes. Make sure they have an hour or more to spend."
When there's no human to talk to -- or give you a hug -- a pet may do just as well. Studies have shown that pets help lower blood pressure and mitigate stress on the heart. (Picture Buddy the Labrador retriever, President Clinton's ever-present pal during the Lewinsky saga, or President George W. Bush with his little Scottie in his arms.) Animals are affectionate, allow us to snuggle with them and -- in a slight improvement over spouses, children, and friends -- never judge us or offer unwanted advice.
In the end, it may be that we are simply hardwired to do good. A study at the Institute for Social Research at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor reported that among older people, those who reported helping others -- even if it was just giving emotional support to a spouse -- were half as likely to die within five years as those who did not. "If comforting behavior can be linked with health and longevity, the implications are significant," says Dr. Post of Case Western. "People who live generous lives soon become aware that in the reasonable giving of self lies the discovery of self."
Even Ebenezer Scrooge would have to agree.