Saturday, October 31, 2009

Protect, border and salute

Whether you or I have suffered losses or authored moments or years of disconnect from the world or know someone who has, is there not something so organic to the human condition that seeks to ease the pain and suffering of another? In the darkest of hours, if there should be any light let through, don't we hope we could be the one to offer it?

In a book written by Parker Palmer, I found some advice that is helpful in understanding grief or depression from the sufferers perspective. Equally so, I was grateful for his insight for those on the "outside looking in".

Read along with me...

"It is odd that some of my most vivid memories of depression involve the people who came to looking in on me, since in the middle of the experience I was barely able to notice who was or was not there. Depression is the ultimate state of disconnection- it deprives one of the relatedness that is the lifeline of every living being.

I do not like to speak ungratefully of my visitors. They all meant well, and there were among the few who did not avoid me altogether. But despite their good intentions, most of them acted like Job's comforters- the friends who came to Job in his misery and offered "sympathy" that led him deeper into despair.

Some visitors, in an effort to cheer me up, would say, "It's a beautiful day. Why don't you go out and soak up some sunshine and look at the flowers? Surely that'll make you feel better."

But that advice only made me more depressed. Intellectually, I knew that the day was beautiful, but I was unable to experience that beauty through my senses, to feel it in my body. Depression is the ultimate state of disconnection, not just between people but between one's mind and one's feelings. To be reminded of that disconnection only deepened my despair.

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. "

He continues on...

"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.

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 socks and shoes, and for half an hour simply massaged my feet.

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: they reassured me that I could still be seen by someone- life-giving knowledge in the midst of an experience that makes one feel annihilated and invisible.

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. 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 than any human being can give."

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