I spent some time this weekend with a dear friend and mentor. Although he’s current on all parenting and educational research and trends, sometimes he seems to come from a different era. While the rest of us are helicoptering and s-mothering, he’s relaxed about kids and has great faith in their future. He constantly tells me not to worry and to take the long view with my own kids.
A few years ago, he and I were at the park with a pack of kids. Two of them went exploring and were gone too long. I was trying to play it cool with him and disguise my rising panic, but I knew we were in real trouble when he turned to me and calmly said, “Seems like it’s time to call the police.” When the most Zen dad around is worried, fear has already entered every cell of my body. The police did come that day and an organic search party began to help us look. Of course, within minutes those two prepubescent girls strolled in chitchatting and gesturing with each other, engrossed in their own stories with no awareness of my alarm.
Although he reacted that day, most of the time he doesn’t. I call him crying about this or that and with as much respect and listening as he can muster, he gently blows me off. I am not throwing him under the bus! He is a rare gift in that he offers empathy without joining in with my neurotic fear.
Last week, I confessed to readers that listening is not my strongest gift and I prefer to fix. Pressing the publish button on that post appears to have unleashed an intention into the universe. My listening and not fixing pledge has been tested almost every day since, and I think I failed most of the opportunities. But these chances to practice have been great. Here is what I’ve learned:
1) I don’t like suffering. 2) I see no upside to it. 3) If we’re honest, most of us deal with a large dose of it.
When I am exposed to another’s pain, I cannot always imagine the healing that will eventually come. I feel the hurt right in the moment and it crushes me. As I get better at the not fixing part, I want to stay good at the emphasizing and comforting. I struggle to embrace my friend’s casual approach to heartache, struggles, and pain and see them all as part of the process of growing up, building character and becoming stronger. Although this notion helps me gain perspective, something about it doesn’t ring absolutely true.
This week I read Renee Alston’s memoir, Stumbling toward Faith. Although her story offers some redemption, it’s mostly a story of great pain and loss. What she faced didn’t, in fact, make her stronger. It just broke her.
I recently discovered my new favorite blogger, Glennon, who writes mostly about parenting and sometimes about recovery. I had a little Aha! moment when I read her bio: My best guess is that I was born a little broken, with an extra dose of sensitivity. Growing up, I felt like I was missing the armor I needed to expose myself to life’s risks – rejection, friendship, tender love.
Growing up with an extra dose of sensitivity pretty much describes me. I could be wrong, and maybe the ultimate story of my life will prove different, but I don’t believe I gained much from pain. I think back on the adults who were around and served as positive guides along my path – professors, youth pastors, parents, grandparents, neighbors, aunts. Guess what? Every single person on my list was someone who was gentle, nurturing and kind to me. No dogmatic, demanding teachers or anyone who made me work for their approval make my list. Only people who provided a safe, grace-filled space for me to feel loved ever motivated me on to greater heights.
When I hear coaches yelling at kids, teachers pitting kids against each other, parents criticizing B+ grades, husbands belittling wives at cocktail parties, or girlfriends competing with or betraying each other, I just cover my aching heart. I never think, Oh goodie, this will make them stronger.
I know there is more than one way to skin a cat, so I am guessing that others are motivated by pain. And although I can agree that I have sometimes learned lessons from tough times, I think the place where growth-during-difficulty happened for me was in the space where loving people were holding me up.
So, that’s what I am going to keep offering in the face of unfair, mind-blowing difficulty. Come to me for some old fashioned TLC, baby!
And while I am doing all that hugging and nurturing, I will also try to emulate my friend. I will attempt to take the long view more often with my own children, keep the panic at bay and put more faith and trust in the God who holds them in the palm of His hand.
I am thinking about the power of listening. Last week, a friend shared a poem entitled A Prayer for a New Year. I passed it on to the group of women who gather each Wednesday in my living room. We read it slowly and pondered each stanza. When we got to the May you be a respecter of fears line, I stopped and tried to figure out what it could mean for me. When I listen to someone share her heart, I want the pain she is feeling to stop, so I usually burst in with the quickest solution I can think of. I say things like, here’s what you should do, or this happened to me once and this is what I did. Rather than just holding the space for her to safely open her heart and be a witness to her suffering, I try to wrap it all up in a solution. I am very uncomfortable with pain and heartache and I don’t want my loved ones to experience it. But suffering is a guaranteed part of life and the more honestly I embrace it, the more I can move through it and past it.
Yesterday I had a chance to practice space holding for someone I love. My old habits kicked in and I had to willfully stifle the urge to fix, arrange, advice-give, manipulate and control. I wanted to ask questions, clarify her statements and produce an action plan. I am good at problem solving and not so good at being still. Maybe the next time we speak about her struggles she’ll be ready for some of those helpful offerings, but last night all she needed was a listening presence. She needed her fears to be respected.
Being a witness to another soul is a powerful gift to offer. I am hoping 2012 gives me opportunities to offer this gift. I offer to be a witness. I offer to listen. I offer to sit in discomfort while pain is shared. I offer the gift of my presence.