I was on a call with Steve when this fun little topic surfaced. He challenged me – first to write it gets to blog it. Welcome to my first blog, ever (I am certain he let me win).
Firstly, I am not going to write about sticks and stones at all. We know they are harmful in oh so many ways. Whether they are as small and bendy as twigs or as large and strong as oak trees, the wounds can be physical, mental and emotional and some will leave scars forever. I am instead focusing on words. Words have always been important to me as I am a real lover of language, however during these past few years, I have been privileged to take my learning to a deeper level of discovery and compassion.
As I write this, I can feel the large, tight, black ball of ugh sitting in my chest (it has settled in again over the past couple of weeks). I recognize this feeling, this ugh that occasionally prevents me from being able to communicate without coughing, prevents me from breathing freely, prevents me from feeling normal. This ugh comes and goes. But where did this ugh come from?
For me, it started with a very stressful work environment about 9 years ago in which I did not have control and was unable to use my voice. I could not just step in, push a magic button and everything would be okay. The ugh seed was planted. Over time, with just the right internal environment and external contributions, the ugh grew in size and established itself somewhere inside me, with many roots becoming intertwined in my soul. Now, the ugh has become a bit of a red flag for me (when I am aware – or when a caring family or friend supports me in recognizing it).
What I call the “internal environment” is the fuel that I allow myself to feed the ugh. “Why is this happening?” “Why can’t I control this?” “I …. (all those hurtful things I can tell myself)”. Internal fuel is often peppered with self-doubt, uncertainty, sadness, fear and shame. This is the part I have to own and I am working on it – no longer allowing my own words to do damage to myself. During times of crisis, it takes more self-awareness and self-compassion … more days of slowing down and breathing. Self-care becomes critical for survival.
“External contributions” are the words I hear from others. Sometimes disguised as words of encouragement and support, they can sometimes be jet fuel that feeds my internal environment. “Why don’t you just ….”, “Perhaps it is time to let go and move on”, “Maybe you should ….”. Hmmm, I wonder. First of all; has anyone stopped to think that perhaps I had already thought of that, and second; if it were just that easy, don’t you think I would have already let go of this pain and stopped the struggling? If people could see inside me when they “help”, they could see how quickly my ugh grows and how large and heavy and full my chest becomes and how painful it is to breathe and to just be. My ugh sits in my chest; yours may be rooted somewhere else.
Recently I heard a Buddhist Chaplin read an article titled “Helping vs Serving” written by Rachel Naomi Remen, MD in the Noetic Sciences Review. The article presented the concept that “When you help, you see life as weak; when you fix, you see life as broken. When you serve, you see life as whole.” Further it suggests that “…fixing and helping may often be the work of the ego, and service is the work of the soul. They may look similar if you’re watching from the outside, but the inner experience is different. The outcome is often different too”.
The Buddhist Chaplin said she was talking to a man who was dying and he described how much it hurt when people would give him useless advice or tell him “Everything will be ok”. I immediately admired this Buddhist Chaplin when she understood and validated him by replying, “Don’t you just want to tell people to fuck off?” and gave the universal sign!! I can’t imagine being on my deathbed and hearing people tell me that things will be okay … really?! What will be ok?
I am not immune to this natural human desire to “heal” people. I received my “in your face” moment of awakening when I was 19. I met a 10 year old boy in an afterschool program we were supporting and his mom came early to take him to a chemotherapy treatment. He was very resistant, and I naively – trying to “help”- suggested he should go because he needed to and it would be ok. He nailed me square in the heart with the following words as he spoke from his painful experience: “You have no idea what it is like!” I lost my breath, my eyes filled with tears, and I assured him he was right and that I was so sorry for my lack of understanding and sensitivity. Those brief moments have stayed with me 30 years and I have been more aware and cautious with my words. Still though, I am human and have likely unintentionally hurt others with my “helpful” words. For that I am truly sorry.
Over the last few years, life has taken me on a journey centred on mental wellness; another smack square in my heart. My compassionate heart is even more awakened now and I better understand the pain first hand that uneducated or insensitive words can cause. Through my experience, I have learned that most people (including me) don’t want you to help or fix them. Being “in service” to another can be as simple (and awkward) as sitting on a bathroom floor for 2 hours saying nothing while they cry (or crying with them); can be as thoughtful as making a call or sending a text saying “I know today is hard for you. I am here”; can be whatever the person dealing with their ugh needs. Rarely though does truly being “in service” comprise of someone telling us that we could have done something better, or that we haven’t done it fast enough. I have learned that sometimes just saying “I’m sorry” and really meaning it, makes a difference. I have found myself saying “I wish I knew what to say”, and sometimes that honesty helps more.
This caring and insightful Buddhist Chaplin also said “Compassion is providing the room one needs to feel”, regardless if the emotion makes us smile or cry. We often want to help others through their heart wrenching feelings because we ourselves find it painful to see them suffer. I know this is my experience, especially for those closest to my heart. I am making daily efforts to practice compassion by allowing more room (which to me usually means time) and by forgiving myself and others when we unintentionally use words that can be as damaging as sticks and stones. Again, I have been reminded to pause and really think before I share words that might not come from true wisdom.
Looking back, I have been on an amazing journey – particularly this past year. I am deeply grateful for my fellow travellers that I have met along the way. We have cried and laughed together many times. We have shared ourselves with each other in ways that can be described only as “beautifully authentic”. At some point, each of us have looked into our shame, guilt, pain, struggles, and the list goes on, and it is during those points, that we have had the opportunity to be in service for each other. My heart holds a very special place for Steve who has been one of my travel companions and has seen my most authentic self so many times. For the many wonderful words of understanding, the moments of support (ok hours), and the genuine laughter that found its place among the roots of authentic experience and growth, I am forever grateful.