What does it mean to deeply and truly love? Such a huge question. What does it mean to be present to another’s pain and suffering without belittling it? I am sure many of us have had moments and times when we felt hopeless, down in the dumps. Or encountered a dear friend or family member, a colleague feeling that way. How do we respond to that?
When I read this piece I was going through a difficult phase in my life – a few years back. The authenticity with which Parker Palmer writes, the subtlety with which he captures the texture of his journey, his vulnerability has touched the lives of perhaps millions. He works with teachers who in turn impact the lives of millions. At one point as I was reading this part of the book, I just broke down… surrendering to the moment, to the tenderness of what it means to be alive and suffering.
While Palmer speaks in this passage about his deep pain and how only few people were able to connect, the essential message I took away is about what it takes to connect deeply to another human being- especially a person who is suffering.
Depression is the ultimate state of disconnection, not only between people, and between mind and heart, between one’s self image and public mask.
Then there were the visitors who began by saying, “I know exactly how you feel….” Whatever comfort or counsel these people may have intended to speak, I heard nothing beyond their opening words, because I knew they were peddling a falsehood; no one can fully experience another person’s mystery. Paradoxically, it was my friend’s empathetic attempt to identify with me that made me feel even more isolated, because it was over identification. Disconnection may be hell, but it is better than false connections.
Having not only been “comforted” by friends but having tried to comfort others in the same way, I think I understand what the syndrome is about: avoidance and denial. One of the hardest things we must do sometimes is to be present to another person’s pain without trying to “fix” it to, simply stand respectfully at the edge of that person’s mystery and misery. Standing there, we feel useless and powerless. Which is exactly how a depressed person feels- and our unconscious need as job’s comforters is to reassure ourselves that we are not like the sad soul before us.
In effort to avoid those feelings, I give advice, which sets me, not you, free. If you take my advice, you may get well and if you don’t get well, I did the best I could. If you fail to take my advice, there is nothing more I can do. Either way, I get relief by distancing myself from you, guilt free.
Blessedly, there were several people, family and friends, who had the courage to stand with me in a simple and healing way. One of them was a friend named Bill who, having asked my permission to do so., stopped by my home every afternoon, sat me down in a chair , knelt in front of me, removed my shoes and socks , and for half an hour simply massaged my feet. He found the one place in my body where I could still experience feeling – and feel somewhat reconnected with the human race.
Bill rarely spoke a word. When he did, he never gave advice but simply mirrored my condition. He would say, “I can sense your struggle today,” or, “It feels like you are getting stronger.” I could not always respond, but his words were deeply helpful: life-giving knowledge in the midst of an experience that makes one feel annihilated and invisible. It is impossible to put into words what my friend’s ministry meant to me. Perhaps it is enough to say that I now have deep appreciation for biblical stories of Jesus and the washing feet.’
The poet Rainer Maria Rilke says, “love… consists in this, that two solitudes protect and border and salute each other.” That is the kind of love my friend Bill offered. He never tried to invade my awful inwardness with false comfort or advice; he simply stood on its boundaries, modeling the respect for me and my journey – and the courage to let it be- that I myself needed if I were to endure.
This kind of love does not reflect the “functional atheism” we sometimes practice – saying pious words about God’s presence in our lives but believing, on the contrary, that nothing good is going to happen unless we make it happen. Rilke describes a kind of love that neither avoids nor invades the soul’s suffering. It is a love in which we represent God’s love to a suffering person, a God who does not “fix” us but gives us strength by suffering with us. By standing respectfully and faithfully at the borders of another’s solitude, we may mediate the love of God to a person who needs something deeper that any human being can give.
Amazingly, I was offered an unmediated sign of that love when in the middle of sleepless night during my first depression; I heard a voice say, simply and clearly, “I love you, Parker.” The words did not come audibly from without but silently from within, and they could not have come from my ego, which was too consumed by self-hatred and despair to utter them.
It was a moment of inexplicable grace but so deep is the devastation of depression that I dismissed it. And yet that moment made its mark: I realized that my rejection of such a remarkable gift was a measure of how badly I needed help.
extracted from ‘Let Your Life Speak’ -Parker J Palmer
We all need help and we all resist being helped in ways that are obvious and subtle. We all can help another. Helping not by way of rescuing, taking the pain away always. Helping in the way Palmer has shared. Often the pain is required. And sometimes what is practiced as ‘healing’ sometimes can be a quick fix. Dealing with the symptom.
It is worth wondering, isn’t it.. what does it mean to truly enable another. What does it take to ‘be with’ ourselves. Rather than distract, avoid, escape and a million things that we do. To avoid pain. And that is fine. Just being aware of that, gradually, in baby steps, we allow ourselves to feel, to see, to be. And open up then to the wonder of being alive.
19 Feb 2014
Close to 4 years after I wrote this blog, this appeared and it so speaks to the theme of this that I thought I must share this here:
“Just to sit – without expectation – with someone who is in grief or fear or loneliness or despair, without trying to fix them in any way, or manipulate their experience to match your idea of how it should be; just to listen, without playing the role of ‘expert’ or ‘enlightened guru’ or ‘the one who knows best’; just to be totally available to the one in front of you, and to walk with them through the fire, to hold their hand when they are broken – this is how we begin to heal each other through love.
Beyond our roles, unprotected, unresolved, undefended, we truly meet.”
– Jeff Foster, this incredible man. (can click on Jeff – its a link to his Fb page!- sure to delight you if you liked this post)