How to Give and Receive Comfort
Comfort Is Crucial
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.