What would happen if we stopped fearing each other’s pain?

Why holding space isn’t tangential to fighting oppression

Sophia Robele
13 min readNov 14, 2023
Photo by Andy Feliciotti on Unsplash

What is the role of holding space for grief and pain in the midst of oppression? For making space to attend to the death of spirit and connection as the byproduct of bearing witness to incomprehensible scales of physical death and destruction? Whose grief and pain should be held, not simply on a moral or ethical level, but also in relation to the effects that such acknowledgment has on what we all feel and think — on what we all in turn do — in response to the source of it? Who should be doing the acknowledging, and how?

There are so many things for which I am not best positioned to speak ; for which many others who have been leading movements for peace and justice for decades have spoken to, for which those who are directly confronted by unimaginable horrors right now are speaking to. But I do feel equipped, as a human being with human experiences and knowledge that comes from that being human — knowledges that we all hold I think, when we choose to listen to them — to add to this landscape of collective reckoning some questions about what our responsibilities are to one another, and about how those interpersonal responsibilities fit into the larger work of standing against injustice.

Many have articulated the ways that systemic change happens in fractals: that what we see play out at the national and global scale is a reflection of the networks of cultures and relationships that make up those systems — of the power dynamics that are enshrined into the ideologies of a society and the ways it has structured itself at all levels. The cultures we enact with our colleagues, our friends, our “enemies,” our communities: these are microcosms of society. And they are not simply neutral, benign reflections of society, but play an active role in either serving to hold up an existing world order (by way of replicating the mindsets and patterns it relies on to maintain itself) or chipping away at its foundation and, at times, creating something more just in its place (if we are practicing ways of being together that reject the status quo).

Rainer Maria Rilke has said, “we have no reason to mistrust our world, for it is not against us. Has it terrors, they are our terrors; has it abysses, those abysses belong to us.

What would it mean to really see terrors abroad or inflicted on others, by forces seemingly separate from us, as our own? Not on some abstract conceptual level, nor simply in recognizing injustice ‘elsewhere’ and responding to it in whatever ways might be available to us as distant individuals, but literally seeing that the same source of a terror that has manifested in the most horrific way in some other part of the world is intricately interwoven with the daily micro assaults on human dignity, or subtle rejections of the belief that all humans are equal, that we touch or witness on a daily basis wherever we are (or everywhere that we take part in systems, norms, cultures premised on capitalist, neo-colonialist, racist beliefs, which is, in our current world, unavoidable).

One thing that has felt increasingly clear to me in recent weeks as a realm of action that we can’t relegate to something secondary when it comes to standing in support of oppressed people and peace — not as something that replaces direct action or of putting the voices and experiences of people experiencing the violence first but that is inextricable from it — is that of holding space for pain and uncertainty. For holding space to bear witness to what the people in our direct sphere of influence are feeling and why. To hold space for contradiction. For multiple truths to exist at the same time.

Perhaps institutions aren’t set up to do this. Perhaps there’s a reason that we fragment the work of holding pain into something that must only be managed by mental health experts: as something that individuals should seek help for on their own or with a professional and work through only in private or with their closest loved ones. As something that has no place in the workplace, except in highly monitored, well-categorized settings that don’t threaten the ‘neutrality’ of the work.

We live in a world full of trauma, and there is an important and unique role for mental health professionals and therapy. But that also can’t be an excuse to outsource the work of being human with and to other humans to a select few people. Or to deny the role of community, or lack of real community, in the ways that trauma manifests in people as they navigate their daily lives — trauma that is often compounded as we continue to ask people to fragment themselves in order to be optimal members of societies and institutions on the basis of capitalistic value systems.

Regardless if someone agrees with these claims on a spiritual or moral level, I think it is also important that for those of us who are in any way in the business of ‘doing good’ — whether professionally or in a personal capacity — to recognize that there are tangible effects borne from the reality of our interconnectedness. When we ignore this reality (e.g., when we don’t give space for people to share emotions in a conversation that is about finding solutions to something horrible), we show up in and ask others to come into spaces as partial people — we leave aspects of our creativity, our drive, our intuition, our ability to connect with our embodied understandings of justice, or our ability to transcend ego in pursuit of truth behind. And, maybe most critical as well to the current moment, when we negate the fullness of others while simultaneously failing to adequately resource ourselves so that we feel grounded enough to exist in whatever way we are, we often close the doors to one of the things we need most to navigate these challenges: shared meaning.

I fully recognize that this is a super idealistic framing of things; that sharing meaning with a group of people we work with is not going to change what any large entity holding power and resources to destroy life will do anytime soon. And it is not the urgent solution that matters most when lives are on the line. But it is nevertheless, at the end of the day, the only real lasting solution to uprooting the forces behind crises. Or finding ways out of societies being driven by fear and insecurity — fear and insecurity that drive people to vote into power those who benefit from and continue to fuel the fear and insecurity that blinds us from truth and justice, or solidifies the barriers that prevent people from connecting in solidarity to stand against the forces of oppression.

It may be an unfortunate reality that the only real way that minds change is when people who hold harmful beliefs feel seen and heard, feel safe, feel their pain acknowleded, because without safety, we aren’t willing to question what we think we know. We don’t unsettle that which holds up our identity, holds up our understanding of the world as we know it. We hold onto it that much more firmly. We get defensive. We reinforce divisions.

It is an unfortunate reality because it feels impossible to reconcile the fact that the thing we need most is the thing that takes time when time is not what we have. Or the thing that requires showing humanity to the people whose experiences, fears or social conditioning have led them to beliefs and actions that deny the humanity of others and propagate dehumanization and death.

“Love has never been a popular movement and no one’s ever wanted really to be free.” — James Baldwin

Slow and unfair, and yet the way that deep, structural change happens. And while there is value in collective action that holds institutions to account — to that which we have already decided as a society is the basic order of human rights — it seems that an equally significant use of our time, if we want to be a part of that which unfixes the foundations that uphold the current power structures, is the work of holding space. Which is (or at least can be) the work of rejecting the voices of White supremacy culture that tell us that this slow, deep work is insignificant. The work of learning what it is to instead co-create decolonial cultures premised on care and belief in every person’s humanity. Of making it possible for something radically different to exist in the future.

What does this mean for the ways we exist in institutions? Or as colleagues hoping to create change, at least in part, through our institutions?

1. We need to stop seeing the absence of turmoil, negative emotion or disruption as a sign of health.

I’m not arguing for workplaces where everyone is falling apart and unable to segment certain emotions at times in order to function (if they are able to and choose to do that). But simply to point out that so often what we call stability or health is really a brushing under the rug of our embodied recognition of our interconnectedness. There is something unnatural about fragmenting ourselves in order to exist in this world. There is something unnatural about this being our norm. Of having to find a compartment in our minds to put the images of dying children to the side long enough to write a report, or sleep at night. Of having to stay zoomed in to find something resembling normalcy when contemplating our co-existence on this planet, knowing that the bigger picture of which we are a part remains absurd and incomprehensible. To create space in which we allow the people around us to acknowledge the complex mix of emotions that surfaces from this necessary fragmentation — to acknowledge that others too feel it and they are not moving through some Twilight Zone version of the world alone — is a means by which construct collective stability amidst chaos. This doesn’t resolve the need to fragment ourselves, but it can make it less debilitating, and hopefully, when channeled into something collective and shared, create some larger form of wholeness we can tap into to better show up in the world in ways that are also of benefit to others.

At some level too, if we are to broach the topic of “wellbeing” (a frame sometimes used as reason for avoiding peer-to-peer explorations of feelings of pain, especially as a collective exercise in institutional spaces), I think maybe none of us have yet to really know what that word means. Yes we each experience aspects of joy and wellness in our lives, but I have a feeling that none of us as have ever known the fullness of what wellbeing or happiness can actually mean, feel like, look like, work in us, so long as we live in a world where inequity is part of our social fabric. I’ve been thinking a lot lately about this idea in the Bahá’í Faith that the oneness of humanity operates in the same way that the essential unity of a human body does: if any part of the body is diseased or injured, we all feel it. To ignore what is hurting doesn’t create healing.

2. We need to stop relegating the work of being human to professionals.

There is of course a lot of nuance to this statement; it is not a blanket one, and of course there is certain work related to unearthing emotions, deep truths, and painful realities that should be left to professionals (especially in severe cases of mental illness). But I also don’t think that the opposite of being in triggering circumstances is existing within social contexts that completely avoid any subjects that may involve the surfacing of some of these emotions or even trauma. This would only be true if the trauma didn’t already exist in people’s bodies. If it wasn’t already regularly brought to the surface for those who live in bodies that the world deems lesser than others. If the grief wasn’t felt on a daily basis for the people who are the intended targets of oppression (and amplified by society’s collective denial and devaluation of it), or the people of privilege who are learning what it means to exist as part of a wider whole and allowing the multi-dimensional feelings that come with that recognition to become the compass for their lives.

Often, avoiding creating spaces to bear witness to and collectively navigate these difficult emotions as people who are in — or seek to be in — community with each other, under the premise of not being ‘qualified’ to do so, doesn’t actually remove that which triggers people. It simply distances us from our existing stake in it. It absolves us (or allows us to delude ourselves into being absolved) from the responsibility that comes with being in community.

[…] that we are each other’s
we are each other’s
we are each other’s
magnitude and bond.”

— Gwendolyn Brooks

3. We need to stop claiming that neutrality is what creates safety and order.

I get that there is a lot of nuance to this point too. That there are certain places where what we currently define as ‘neutrality’ in many social good spaces might play a strategic role in enabling actions that mitigate immediate harm for people. Even if that comes at the cost of perpetuating the drivers of future harm. It is a painful but unavoidable reality that often a trade-off of prioritizing human life in the present moment calls for operating within the rules of the game set by colonialistic legacies and ideologies of separation and destruction: that we often further entrench those systems in doing what is necessary to halt the extent of their destruction now. And that to fully disrupt and unsettle such systems may in fact have severe costs in the short term, including for those already experiencing the brunt of harm, that maybe we’re not yet equipped to navigate as a society or multilateral institutions. We might not be ready to turn the interim chaos that would result from truly disrupting power into something that becomes the fertile ground for reimagining and re-constructing just systems anew.

But while there may be discernment needed as to when to conform to existing systems of power for the sake of doing what saves lives in the present, it doesn’t mean we should conflate neutrality with safety. We shouldn’t lie to ourselves about the trade-offs inherent to working in larger systems. Or apply the same blanket definitions or logics of neutrality we might need in the macro development challenges we work on to the micro-level relationships we take part in to understand and process those challenges. Neutrality — especially when its primary function is silence or avoidance of sensitive tensions — only creates safety for those who are already benefiting from systems of power whose existence depend on the harm of others (which, similar to privilege, includes the benefit of perceiving the denial of harm as a state of equilibrium).

4. We can’t wait for perfect conditions in order to collectively navigate that which is intrinsically unnatural.

Maybe this whole post is just finding multiple ways to say some version of the same thing: everything is nuanced, there is a need for discernment and care in navigating any of this, there is no single right answer to transcending the logics of oppression woven into the systems we operate through, there will always be some risk, disruption and costs entailed, but it is only in our willingness to try something different — to practice the alternative worlds we want to one day see — that any real meaningful change will happen. On a tangible day-to-day level, in what we create in our workplaces for instance, this means we can’t be expected to open the gates to seeing each other in our fullness as people only when the conditions are ‘perfect.’ Especially when we still operate within cultures that associate perfect conditions or outcomes more often with stasis than justice, perfect often ends up equating to watered-down or with caveats and restrictions. It equates to something which isn’t actually interested in being fully human or repairing the relationships that define our world, because those things are inherently messy and imperfect.

Even if the intentions behind striving for perfect conditions is to avoid potential amplification of pain or divisiveness, we also can’t hold to end goals that deem interactions or collective actions as valuable only if they immediately result in more clarity, direction and structure. Or if the process comes with minimal stumbling or mistakes. An approach that releases perfection as the standard doesn’t negate that facilitating connection is a skillset, that there are certain practices that support this, or that there are people with more experience than others in moving through the world with a care-based lens. But so much of this is developed largely through the field of practice. And there is a necessary component of transformation that comes only from our willingness to enter the terrain of “mutual supported lostness, also known as […] care” (Ross Gay). As one colleague put it, we can’t keep fearing each other’s pain.

Ultimately, we have to trust in our collective capacity to handle the messiness. To stumble through potential things that trigger. To attempt at the work of holding space for care even when there may be harmful views in the room. To recognize that when confronted with people we have little in common with, we all share the human experience of pain — that this is a powerful connector amidst difference. To trust that we are all capable of prioritizing our mutual humanity above all else when immersed in such spaces. To learn how to do this among ourselves, to witness its possibility, to practice it into existence.

As development actors in particular, we have to do this so that when we are in spaces where we have the opportunity to inform policy, or accompany stakeholders in understanding the roots of the challenges they are working to address, or defining the level of ambition and types of actions that are most vital, we are premising it on this grounded hope [based on what we’ve seen and felt] that collective care in the face of discord and deep conceptual divides is possible. That it transforms. For if we don’t really believe this is possible — if we aren’t practicing that possibility in our own microcosms of society — then what vision of the world are we really working towards in trying to change anything anywhere?