Five years for Haiti and something on compassion I've learned along the way

Today, marks five years since a magnitude 7.0 earthquake ravaged Haiti. The words that follow and the thoughts they are intended to form—represent what I have grappled with and learned in these five years since witnessing and helping respond to the pain and suffering of so many who were injured, fell ill, and lost their homes and their loved ones that day.

I have learned so much about compassion from my Haitian colleagues and friends over the years. Many of the lessons had not yet dawned on me when I was working so closely with them following the earthquake, and yet, they were always planting seeds for my growth. Thank you—you know who you are.


The rock in the water does not know the pain of the rock in the sun.

"Woch nan dio pa konnen doule woch nan soley." This is a proverb from Haiti and in Haitian Creole. Translated to English, the proverb means, "The rock in the water does not know the pain of the rock in the sun."

This saying calls out to me:

"Pay attention to the pain of others.
But stay humble.
You can't know it."

"Which rock am I?" I wonder. "The rock in the water or the rock in the sun?"

"Who's with me?" I wonder, "In the water... or in the sun?"

“Does the rock in the water have pain too?”

 ---

I've been working on the question of what it means to know the pain of humanity since I can remember. For years, I felt that if I could know the pains of humanity I could fix them.

As a child, I’d look at homeless people wondering about their experience of life and how to change it. As a teen, I volunteered, I studied, I did all of this with a deep desire to know the pain of humanity in order to know the path to healing, wholeness, and justice.

In my late teens and twenties, I found myself working in various marginalized communities of the United States, India, Costa Rica, Cuba, Haiti, Rwanda, and Malawi. I travelled the world searching for a professional path to transforming the pains of humanity.

With hindsight, I can see clearly how this quest to know the pain of our world and to transform it was and continues to be a quest to know my own pain and to transform it.

I grew up in privilege where I had experienced little loss and had not wanted for anything. When I felt something pain-like, I was always certain that it was not “real pain” because I had no “real reason” for it. My parents are both deeply caring people engaged in helping cure the ill health of environmental and social policy across the United States—they never denied the pain and suffering that exists in our world. In fact, they taught me about those pains and sufferings out there—the rocks in the sun. But the pain I learned about was never ours. It was never mine. There was little, if any, shared grappling with our own difficult experiences, emotions, or meaning of them in our household.

For years, pain—real pain—was always otherness to me.

My quest to the far corners of the world was my own way of trying desperately to understand what pain is for me. As I developed my career in serving people and communities in pain, I thought for sure I had figured it out. I had my helper’s toolkit—lots of resources and a caring heart. But pain was still otherness to me. I had found ways—with great professional affirmation—of objectifying the obvious pain of those living at the fringes of our societies. I was certain I could fix it. And I continued to ignore my own pain.

I had set up a field of comparative suffering where whatever pain-like thing that I experienced was nothing compared to that of others. As a result, my own vulnerability could be hidden while I participated in diagnosing the vulnerabilities of others. This, I have learned, is not compassion. This is privilege, power, and the posture of certainty masquerading as something compassion-like.  

To be truly compassionate with another is to be capable of being with someone’s suffering without needing to fix or to know it and without needing to know whether it will be transformed. To cultivate compassion in this way fundamentally requires us to know our own suffering, our own discomfort, and our own pain. We cannot stay present to the pain of another and the uncertainty of outcome without feeling the pain of our own vulnerability—there is the pain of solidarity and witness if there is no other that is ours. 

This shared vulnerability is what makes us human. It’s what allows us to connect, to love, to heal, and to be free.

---

"The rock in the water does not know the pain of the rock in the sun."

I see a malnourished child try desperately to muster up the energy for a smile. I do not know this child’s pain, and yet I too muster the energy to smile with him.

I see a mother cling to the hope that she can put food on her table tomorrow. I do not know this mothers’ pain, and yet I hope with her.

I see a patient arrive at a health clinic wondering if anyone will help put a roof over his head and not only treat the fever that has resulted from sleeping on a rain soaked mat. I do not know his pain, and yet I wonder with him.

I see survivors of earthquakes and terrorist attacks lose loved ones and limbs. I watch them slowly rebuild their lives one step at a time. I do not know these survivors’ pain, and yet, following these horrific events, I rebuild my life one step at a time alongside them.

In these moments, through mustered up smiles, shared hopes, tortured wonderings, and difficult resurrections—there is pain. The pain of others. And my pain. There is also transformation in the solidarity of our vulnerability. 

In our togetherness, there is compassion. In our togetherness, there is freedom.

We, as human beings, have the miraculous ability to be together and to know the wholeness of our own experiences even when it is hard to smile. We have the ability to hope even if it is torturous to find wonder or it feels impossible to rebuild.

Perhaps this is enough—we don’t need to know the inner experiences of others; we don’t need to feel the certainty of what the future holds; we don’t need to wonder which rock we are today. We simply need to connect in compassion.

---

Patrick Sylvain’ s poem, Ports of Sorrow, is a poem about his experience following the news of the earthquake that hit Haiti on January 12, 2010. His poem begins with the line “Early January afternoon, I stand in my own port of pain” and ends with the lines, “I feel burdened by death, /Losses and corpses swarming in my chest. /I need a stronger port to anchor their souls.”

For me, Sylvain’s poem demonstrates what it means for him to know his own pain. In sharing his own knowing, he points us to our knowing. This is how we come together, witnessing the pain of others and knowing our own pain.

Sylvain has a plea—“I need a stronger port.” Sylvain’s plea is my plea today. As we remember what happened five years ago today and all that has happened since—as we continue the process of healing—we do not simply “stand in our [own] ports of pain.” We need a stronger port to collectively anchor the souls of those who are lost and suffering. We need a port greater than any one of us—something that can hold us all together.

What port of all ports can anchor their souls?

What port of all ports can hold all of our pain?

What port of all ports can hold our unknowing?

What port of all ports can hold our uncertainty?

What port of all ports can hold our strength and resilience?  

What port of all ports can hold our awe and our joy?

What port of all ports holds both the experience of the rock in the water and the rock in the sun?

This plea from the depths of our shared vulnerability helps us remember to mourn together today. Our port of ports is found in the sacred community of compassion we have and will continue to build together.

Through this sacred community—the interbeing of our humanity, the universal spirit of life—we seek to anchor our personal experiences of pain, to renew our strength, to rediscover our hope, and to notice our transformation in the presence of that higher power we trust can hold us all.

This truth beyond; this power; this God, however we may define or label her, offers us a knowing beyond the knowing of experience. She knows the pain of the rock in the sun. She knows the pain of the rock in the water. She connects the two on her sacred ground.

Today, as we listen to and share our stories of what happened in Haiti five years ago (and since), I invite each of you to cultivate a faith in the interconnected nature of our journeys—to cultivate a faith in the global community of compassion that is made up of and transcends each and every one of our individual experiences.

This is why we come together in prayer, in relationship, in need, in pain, and in witness. In the great port of humanity, we come together as different rocks, some bathed in the sun, others deeply submerged under water. And we as human beings with pains ask for connection, love, healing, and resurrection.

Together, I believe, we are capable of reflecting the port of all ports that we seek. We are the community of compassion we need.

Perry Dougherty serves as a facilitator, spiritual director, and writer in her role as Director of the Institute for Spiritual Formation & Society of Still Harbor. She has a background working with non-profit social justice organizations (serving at Partners In Health from 2006 through 2010). Perry tailors her programs, workshops, and efforts to explore how spiritual practice, creative expression, and narrative can enrich spiritual leadership for social justice. Perry is an ordained Interfaith Minister by One Spirit Interfaith Seminary and editor of Anchor magazine.