We all suffer - How to address suffering affective

We all suffer – How to address suffering affective

Some days ago, I discovered the podcast Social Distance by The Atlantic. This podcast captures conversations between the preventive medicine physician and staff writer at The Atlantik Dr James Hamblin and the executive producer of podcasts for The Atlantic Katherine Wells about different aspects of the current 2020 COVID-19 crisis. Often they are joimed by a topic expert to discuss with and learn from.

One of the first episodes I listened to was episode 21 ‘You’re Doing Great’ in which James and Katherine are joined by Lori Gottlieb, a contributing writer at The Atlantic and a psychotherapist. She recently wrote a column about losing her father in the mids of a pandemic. Their conversation evolved around grief during these uncertain times at large but also very personal. 

One statement by Gottlieb resonated with me:

“Grief is the pain of loss. And it doesn’t have to be a death. It’s any kind of loss that causes you pain. People are minimizing certain losses because they feel like they aren’t valid. You’re missing your college graduation, for example. That’s a loss, and you grieve that. But it’s not the loss of a life, for example, or the loss of a job. As I always say: There’s no hierarchy of pain. There’s no hierarchy of grief. Grief is grief and loss is loss.” 

It reminded me of the many times friends apologised for sharing a problem with me. In the bare face of the death of my father, the struggles with a flatmate over the dishes or the disappointing date seem too small, too unimportant to bother me. How could they feel bad about the favourite t-shirt from that live-changing concert 15 years ago getting ruined in the laundry while I was grieving one of the most important people in my life? How could a sprained ankle that ended the participation in a dance tournament when my heart was breaking over never again seeing the man who raised me?

Similar to Gottlieb, I believe that there is no right or wrong grief, pain or suffering – no bigger or smaller. How could working towards this one dance tournament for over a year sacrificing time with family and friends being ruined just a day before it not count as a loss? Same goes for the shirt, which is so much more than a simple and replaceable textile. It is the token of the memory of the last concert they went to with their university best friend before she moved to the other side of the world.

That might sound ridiculous to you.

To help you better understand this seeming riddle, I would like to introduce to the concept of subjective vs objective suffering to you. 

In this blog post, I am referring to a concept I was taught by a disability activist some years ago. Unfortunately, we fall out of touch and to my shame, I cannot recall her name to correctly cite her here in recognition of her emotional labour. I am aware that these terms ate used similarly within Buddhist teachings and medical philosophy. Nevertheless, I have not done enough research to correctly include them here.

Let’s explain the concept of subjective vs objective suffering with an example. For that, I would like to introduce Alma and Bettel. Alma is a wheelchair user depending on assistance in many of her daily activities. Bettel struggles with chronic back pain and takes pain killers frequently. 

Looking at those two people without knowing anything else, who would you think struggles more going through life? Most of us would say, Alma, as most of our infrastructure is not accessible for wheelchair users and their life is impacted by countless stereotypes and stigma. If both would enter a room at the same time, Alma would always be identified as “different” and “in need of assistance”. In navigating or capitalist, sexist, ableist and racist society, people with visible disabilities and illnesses would encounter more discrimination and oppression – e.g. higher objective suffering.

But if we zoom into the actual daily life of these two people, we would see that Alma actually is the executive director for a nonprofit organisation, frequently travels the world and lives in a house fully adjusted to their needs. Bettel’s pain got so bad that they are on sick leave for over two months from their minimum wage job. The medication they are taking is highly addictive and harms their stomach and liver. Some days the pain is so bad they cannot get out of bed, which isolates them more and more. 

Again, who would you think struggles more going through life? Saying Alma does not feel right anymore, but how could we choose Bettel? It feels wrong to ignore all the societal and systemic factors that Alma as a wheelchair user has to fight against. But it also feels terrible to not count the real physical, psychological and financial hardship that Bettel experiences despite her societal and systemic privileges as a person passing as able-bodied.

That is where subjective suffering comes into play. Subjective suffering looks at to which degree an individuals’ life is negatively impacted through the intersection of their unique lived experience. Acknowledging Bettel’s daily pain and struggle to the degree they negatively affect their life within the framework of subjective suffering does negate the real systemic oppression Alma experiences.

Going back to my apologising friends at the beginning: Your at first sight trivial appearing everyday issues, due not get devalued because my father died. The monstrosity of experiencing grief for a parent does not mean you cannot get upset because the bus did not come, and you will be late for the coffee with a friend. 

If we encounter each other in an affectionate way in which we really see one another with all our weaknesses, we can avoid falling back into oppression Olympics where we measure each other’s struggles in better or worse terms. The pure fondness of affections allows us to be there for others facing racism in the same way we can help out a friend who needs a couch to crash on after a bad breakout. It also allows softness for your own struggles. You can cry over the loss of a pet in the same way you are raging about the endangerment of women* in refugee camps. Our lives and experiences are big enough to give space to both – subjective and objective suffering.

Thank you for taking the time out of you day. I hope it is helpful for you in navigating these uncertain times. Let me know what you think by leaving me a comment below. If you want me to reflect on another theory or concept reach out. Also, it would help me out if you like and share this post with our fellow trainer friends!

Love and appreciation,

Anuschka

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Why we all discriminate – Method of the Month: Sticker Discrimination

As trainer and facilitator, we often face complex concepts like discrimination and we uhm and ah about how to facilitate a personal reflection on such a difficult topic with our participants. We want to avoid platitudes like “I do not discriminate as I believe in equality”, “Only people who are racist/sexist/abelist/… discriminate” or “I am a woman/PoC/… so I cannot discriminate”. Many participants have a hard time to think beyond these platitudes and are unconscious of one basic fact: As we live and operate in a discriminatory society, we are likely to act unconsciously in discriminating ways

A simple discussion of different definitions will certainly not do the job. On the contrary, a full-on simulation might not fit in the allocated time slot within your training. This is where my first Method of the Month will come to your rescue! The method is based on “Labeling Ourselves” publish by… in ….

“Sticker Discrimination” is a short and impactful simulation that confronts participants with rules and tasks that are aimed to trigger discriminative behaviours. After mixing the participants up by standing up and walking around, the trainer invites them to close their eyes. She walks around and marks the participants’ foreheads with different stickers. Some are left with no stickers. She now instructs the group to form smaller groups according to two rule: they are not allowed to speak and can only create groups of maximum four people. [Pro tip: Variate the number of people so participants can not split evenly]

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Participant waiting with closed eyes. [picture: IUSY]

Once the groups are formed, they are tasked to think of why they grouped up, what they have in common and what makes them better than the other groups. After the presentation of each group, the trainer calls the participants back in the large circle to facilitate the debrief. She helps the group to reflect on the process of the group building and forming a group identity. Did they follow a particular strategy? Where there moments of comfort or discomfort? How did it feel when someone was left out? How did this person feel? What were the power structures within the process? What did the stickers represent? Why did they stick to/break the trainer’s rules? How does this simulation relate to reality and the societies we live in?

I used this method in my last training “Equality start with us! – Youth promoting inclusive societies and global citizenship and opposing violent extremism” for the International Union of Socialist Youth in cooperation with the Council of Europe. We were already on our second day, and it was the start of several session on the topic of discrimination that would be later connected to the reality of refugees. On our first day, we worked mostly on the issue of identity which my co-trainer and I used as foundation and point of reference for the debrief.

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Participants trying to form groups without speaking. [picture: IUSY]

In my opinion when facilitating this method the trainer already needs to be established and recognised by the group as a leader. Otherwise, the power of the rules is weakened, or participants who are facing discomfort might just leave the exercise. We choose to use a harsh and authoritarian tone to instruct the participants and not to react to approaches during the group phases. Further, we interrupted or shut down groups during their presentation and even skip one group’s presentation entirely.

Looking at the outcomes, we as facilitators were surprised that even so, we worked with a group of left-leaning political activists how ‘easily’ they fall into behaviour patterns that embraced the rules given. Not one person broke the rules or rebelled against us as facilitators. The initial group forming happened really fast, and most participants expect that they finished their task, but participants did not realise that one person was left alone. This lack of awareness shocked many of them. They were so eager to figure it out and fulfil the trainers’ expectation, that they did not question the broader context of the exercise. In the debrief the participants were able to relate this to their real life and the fact that many people do not discriminate consciously but blindly follow the rules and authorities and therefore establish and maintain a system of discrimination.

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Participants are discussing how the exercise relates to discrimination in real life. [picture: IUSY]

Possible variations could be replacing the stickers with roles or attribute. The roles could relate to the context of the living reality of the participants like professions, gender, sexuality, education, religion or ethnicity. The attributes could be different forms of greetings or movements. If you are working with a multi-ethnical group, the rule of not speaking could be replaced by only speaking in one’s native language. The debrief could be connected to a group work phase, in which the participants have to relate the structures of the exercise to common hatreds like sexism, ableism and racism.

I am convinced that “Sticker Discrimination” is a powerful and with 30 minutes relatively short exercise on discrimination. It offers a different approach to understand the mechanism of especially structural discrimination and by being non-verbal invites shyer or participants with a more substantial language barrier to take an active role in the group‘s learning process. The discomfort experienced during the exercise enables a more profound reflection.

As always leave me questions and remarks down in the comment section below. I truly appreciate you taking this time out of your day to discover the world of Affective Facilitation with me. And I would be of course delighted if you decide to share it with someone!

Love and Appreciation,

Anuschka