Suffering as an Interpersonal Process. Making Sense in Richard Selzer’s “Witness”

Research Paper (postgraduate), 2012

20 Pages, Grade: 1


Table of Contents

Introduction 3

Towards a definition of suffering 4

About ”Witness“ 8

The Process of Making Sense: Doctors as Witnesses of Suffering 10

The Parents’ Situation: Accepting the “Gifts of Suffering” 16

Conclusion 18

List of Works Cited 19


This paper will be dealing with the process of making sense of suffering. On the basis of Richard Selzer’s short story “Witness”, an analysis will be given with the focus on the experience of the doctor as a witness of suffering. It will show that suffering is an interpersonal process and that, in order to understand and to make sense of it, it is important to share the experiences we make. To deal with the pain rather than to repress it is vital so one is able to learn from suffering.

First, I want to try to give a definition of suffering, considering and comparing different perspectives on the topic. A short passage on the story and its author will follow. The main part of this paper will be the analysis of the process of making sense, which can be observed in the narrator of the story. Lastly, I also want to take a look at the situation of the parents, who already have found the meaning behind suffering and accepted the “gifts” it can bring.

Towards a Definition of Suffering

Suffering is part of life. Everyone knows what suffering feels like and has suffered at least once in his or her life. However, there are many different ways of suffering and everyone experiences it individually. Therefore, it is important to at least outline a general definition of the term in order to be able to talk about it.

First of all, one must distinguish between suffering and pain. Like suffering, pain is subjective and depends on the individual person and his or her handling of the situation. People who are afflicted e.g. with chronic headaches or migraine might have a higher pain threshold, while others, who are not used to this kind of pain, can tolerate much less of it and might therefore suffer more. Everyone has their own way of dealing with pain and this also affects the degree of suffering. Although “pain remains a major cause of human suffering and is the primary image formed by people when they think about suffering” (Cassell 31), it is by far not the only reason. Often it is even the other way round and suffering is the source of pain. Lucy Candib argues that in some cases, “[s]uffering cannot be sustained in the mind, cannot be kept in consciousness. […]Suffering goes into the body, and comes out, translated, as pain, as symptoms. The symptoms are in the body – they have become embodied.” (47) This mechanism can often be observed in people who have undergone traumatic experiences.

Suffering can be seen as a state of mind that is influenced by many factors. Cassell states that suffering is “experienced by persons, not merely by bodies, and has its source in challenges that threaten the intactness of the person as a complex social and psychologic entity” (qtd. in Ferrell & Coyle 242). Such challenges can emerge at any point: through the loss of a beloved person, experiencing some form of violence (both mental and physical), or also witnessing the agony of others.

The social aspect of suffering is also very important. In his introduction to Suffering, Death and Identity, Fisher argues that “suffering is never isolated. […] Suffering is necessarily interpersonal. We suffer with and on behalf of those who are suffering. Their suffering causes and creates suffering in us.” (2) This statement especially refers to witnesses of suffering. Often those who are only observers of the pain of others suffer even more than the persons concerned. According to Fisher, this also means that “the suffering of others is a constitutive factor in our own personal identity.” (3) It shapes our personality, teaches us compassion and leads us away from selfishness. Recognizing the importance of suffering for our own identity is essential for everyone, even if they are not currently in pain. It is one of the most important lessons life teaches us. This awareness is the first step towards making sense of suffering and eventually learning to appreciate also the “gifts” of suffering.

H. Mike Awalt goes one step further and talks about “disaster”, defining it as one of those shattering, life-changing experiences that ultimately lead to understanding (cf. 5). He states that “disaster gives shape to who we are. It does not destroy us, but it inscribes us. Selves are constructed, not given. Out of the struggle with the disaster and the attempt to give it a voice, we, in the process, shape our own voice.” (17) He, too, emphasizes how important the experience of suffering is for developing our own identity, our “self”. Every one of us makes different experiences during his or her lifetime, and this is what makes suffering so unique. We all have our own way of dealing with pain, based on our personal background and the relationships to other people around us, and we all have our own way of learning our lessons and drawing conclusions that may or may not have an impact on our personality.

In order to be able to deal with suffering, it is very important to give it a voice rather than trying to repress and forget. Richard Selzer discusses this importance in his essay “The Language of Pain”. Right at the beginning he explains that he writes about pain so much in order to “give it a name” (28). He states that it is very hard to express pain with words, as it basically is “subverbal. Just as well, for to convey pain exactly would be to relive it and to suffer anew. In the matter of pain, it is better to experience it metaphorically than to know it directly.” (33) In order to understand the pain and suffering of others, we can only relate to our own experiences, but we can never really feel what another person feels when he or she suffers. We need to make use of images and metaphors so that we can define our pain and explain it to others.

This process of sharing is important for both sides, the sufferer and the spectator. According to Reich, nurses and doctors as witnesses of suffering can help their patients through listening to them and so “giving voice” to their suffering, while “silencing or stifling the voice of suffering serves only to intensify it.”(cf. Ferrell & Coyle 243) As suffering is mainly a mental process, it can be very helpful to talk about it rather than trying to cope with it on one’s own.

Awalt also emphasizes the necessity of “writing the disaster”: “We must try to express what eludes expression.” (7) Although speaking or writing about it will not heal us from our pain, but rather keeps it present on our mind, the wound that is so kept open will in the end bring “light, meaning, truth and discovery” (Awalt 16). Dealing with the pain and accepting it is the first step towards making sense of it. Here also lies the fine line between “useful suffering, which leads to development, and useless suffering, which leads merely to the repetition of suffering.” (Young-Eisendrath 9) People who make no attempt to cope with their experiences but only try to forget can never really get over it and are also in danger of repeating their mistakes.


Excerpt out of 20 pages


Suffering as an Interpersonal Process. Making Sense in Richard Selzer’s “Witness”
University of Innsbruck
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suffering, interpersonal, process, making, sense, richard, selzer’s, witness”
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Theresa Rass (Author), 2012, Suffering as an Interpersonal Process. Making Sense in Richard Selzer’s “Witness”, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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