“I never challenge a client or bring up a deeply-held, difficult topic until I can tell that the person is really close to saying it themselves.”
Years ago, a professor once said to our class,
“When I was training to be a pastoral counselor, I worked with a supervisor and talked my sessions over with him. Once, I had a client who was deeply in denial. It was so obvious. One week, as I was planning for our session, I came up with a process to really tell her the truth and point all that denial out to her. But my supervisor stopped me. He said, “You know, the reason people have defense mechanisms is… they have things they need defending from.”
Ask for help — for what you need. Big things and small things. Do it frequently. Invite people into your needs, and trust (even if you feel those cultural messages begin to rise within you) that it gives people joy, gratitude, and a sense of connection to be asked to help you.
(Don’t you feel that way when people ask you for help? Why should you believe you’re the one exception?)
So be culturally subversive — Face those internalized messages head on, That you’re somehow burdensome or a bother, or asking too much, or being too much.
Face it, and be a full-time, authentic rebel, Need it, Name it, Ask it.
A few days ago, I spontaneously laughed aloud at the grocery store when I saw an assortment of decorative gourds. (Photo, above). In and of themselves, there’s nothing particularly funny about them. They just reminded me of something.
They reminded me of my first job. How many people can say this? As a high schooler, my first job ever was
Yep, I worked at a farm where my main task was to spray shellac on decorative gourds to make them SHINE. Shine with all their decorative glory!
And to me, the funniest thing about this is that when I later applied for my second high school job, the application asked for my previous employment history. I didn’t know what to write for my previous job title. So I wrote,
What a ridiculous thing to say. I suppose partly this was for my own amusement. But the person interviewing me did actually ask, “So what is a Gourd Technician?” and I had to answer!
I think in the moment, I laughed about it, said I was a Gourd Shellacer, but I didn’t know how to name that precisely on an application.
Thankfully, I got the serving job despite the oddities.
You know, if we pay attention throughout our day, I bet we can all find a bunch of silly, spontaneously memories. And they might just bring us some joy, as strange as they and we might be.
After pausing the music, then giving the sopranos a direction, our choir director said, “I know you can do it,” with a big smile.
That’s when I saw something really sweet:
I watched the body language of the big group of sopranos who smiled back immediately with a sense that they were truly internalizing what he just said. I could see that happen. Just one comment. But a comment of confidence from a person who is trusted, funny, caring, genuine, and inviting us to create.
That opened up a larger thought for me about encouragement, connection, and mirroring.
No one is able to define us — no person, no group — nor should it ever be that way.
— And at the same time —
I don’t think any of us comes to know ourselves, really and truly on the deeper levels, without the encouragement, connection, and mirroring of others.
We need to see ourselves seen. That is how we know we are loved. That is how we come to know and trust some of our best attributes, gifts, and particularities. That is how we know we belong and that we are believed in, even in the moments when we make mistakes or fail.
We need to give this gift to each other.
And I also wonder, even larger than the interpersonal, is it possible to do this with whole groups of people? Providing encouragement, connection, and mirroring in directions that convey…
hope is not a pipe dream…?
change is possible…?
we have the attributes, gifts, and particularities to build a better, safer, more loving world…?
I’ve started reading this wonderful, new biography about Fred Rogers, entitled, The Good Neighbor: The Life and Work of Fred Rogers by Maxwell King. In particular, I love a story in this book which I’ve never heard before.
Once, an intern who was working on the Mister Rogers Neighborhood television show traveled with Fred Rogers to Boston. A very influential executive at the Boston public television station had invited them to dinner with the rest of his family. The executive arranged for a limousine to pick up Fred and the intern and bring them both to his home. Once the limousine arrived at the house, the driver asked what time he should return to pick them up again. But instead of sending him away until a later time, Fred Rogers just invited him to the dinner! And the wife of the television executive was completely caught off guard and bewildered by this.
Then after the dinner was over, Fred Rogers sat up front with the limo driver and spent time getting to know him. His name was Billy. After connecting so wonderfully, Billy invited Fred and the intern over to his parents’ house. While there, Fred played the piano and people from the neighborhood kept coming over and joining the spontaneous time together. And Fred and Billy stayed in touch. A few years later, Fred learned that Billy was in the hospital and dying, and he made a personal phone call to say goodbye.
Connection, friendship, and kinship can happen at any time. And I suppose if we want to live in a world where they transform us, we have to be willing to do the unexpected and upend the labels and class structures that divide us.
That’s a stark sentence, I realize, yet a true one. My Grandpa Jim’s early life was very rough. He was the youngest of five children. When his Mom was pregnant with him, or shortly after he was born — I’m not sure — his Dad died. This part I do know: My Grandpa Jim was born on the very day of the 1929 Stock Market Crash. That plunged the United States into the Great Depression.
His mother could not afford to raise her children so she placed them all in a Catholic orphanage. Then she set a plan in motion; she started selling moonshine! When she made enough money to bring her eldest home from the orphanage, that child helped her with the business. And when they had enough money to bring the second eldest home from the orphanage, that child helped her with the business. This pattern continued until they were all home. My Grandpa Jim lived in the orphanage the longest. He spent his first seven years of life there.
It was a challenging place. They had so little. He once found a chocolate bar wrapper and kept it for a good while just so he could smell it. This was a very vivid memory to him. It was rare that the children had big joys or delights.
But as an older adult, my Grandpa Jim loved to delight in small things.
Here’s a very vivid memory that I have: When my Great Uncle and his Brother-in-law died, most people were out in the hallway after the visitation was over, but he and I sat in the room together for a bit, and he started telling me ghost stories. They felt especially playful and spooky in a funeral home. All these years later, I don’t remember any of the details of those stories, but what I remember very clearly is that he had a red lollipop in the breast pocket of his dress shirt. Maybe that was an odd context to have a sucker sticking out of your pocket and visibly (I mean, there were pants pockets too). But I imagine he found it lying around somewhere in the funeral home — maybe they were there for guests or for children — and he snagged one for himself so he could enjoy it later.
There were other silly, simple delights too. He used to sing these really goofy songs. All these years later, his grandchildren remember all the words. He loved to whistle and shuffle his feet in a little dance. And I honestly believe he was just as excited as the children, if not more excited, to open presents for Christmas.
Earlier this week, when I was leaving my workplace, I saw some Hersey Kisses in a bowl, and I put about five of them in the pocket of my jacket. All week long, every time I’ve put on my jacket and grabbed my keys in my pocket, I’ve also been surprised that I have these there. I just keep forgetting they’re there. And each time, I have this huge spike in delight. People who know me well also know how excited I get for little treats, and how much I enjoy the surprise of them, whether they’re displayed for a group or whether people give them to me personally. It’s a big swell of delight for something small yet unexpected.
And I’ve never made the connection before. This week, for the first time in my life, I asked myself, “Do I get this from Grandpa Jim?”
These days, it’s so important to give and receive gentleness from one another.
Gentleness is a consistent human need, but right now, we may need it in a particularly deep and present way. Our world seems to be reeling from waves of trauma. When we hold awareness of traumatic pain, whether we’ve experienced it directly or felt it via the news cycle, our bodies, minds, and spirits can be deeply affected.
Waves of trauma in our world are not new, of course, but right now, we are especially aware of injustices and forms of insecurity – a pandemic ,white supremacy, economic inequality, numerous natural disasters, deportations and family separations, and violence on a massive scale. To be aware of these things is not merely to know about them but to be affected by them.
We need action – decisive, creative, and disruptive action to adequately address and rectify all of these.
And alongside that action, we also need gentleness.
Our bodies need it, our minds need it, our emotions need it, our sense of spiritual longing needs it.
And perhaps, our sense of time needs it too. Here is a paradoxical thing I have learned over the years about trauma:
Trauma often distorts time. This is especially true in a post-traumatic experience. A small detail in the present moment can suddenly pull us back into the past, making it feel as though a past upheaval is happening right now. Likewise, a small detail in the present moment can suddenly ignite anxiety, causing a tailspin of fear in which we imagine a future where the upheaval might repeat itself. In these ways, trauma can bookend the present moment with a past and future that feel quite painful and insecure.
But with gentleness,
Trauma also opens up time. This is a pretty miraculous thing. There is also concept called post-traumatic growth. (Watch this video). Some people who experience the upheaval of trauma are able to remake their lives and live them more deeply, often with a greater sense of love and spiritual meaning than they might have had before. This is in no way to suggest that the trauma is somehow a good thing or a blessing in disguise. Certainly not. But post-traumatic growth can happen alongside the traumatic distortion. When it comes to a sense of time, there can actually be a bit of reversal of what I’ve articulated above. Good memories and meaningful relationships can be internalized in such a way that they are felt as deeply present. Beloved people and life-giving moments from the past and hopes for the future can feel more accessible in the present moment among people who have experienced post-traumatic growth.
So what helps people experience this kind of growth? Two things are very important:
1) being surrounded by a community of care with relationships that add gentleness and sustaining presence
2) becoming enabled to make meaning of the traumatic experience, while learning to create a new narrative with that meaning.
So these days, in this time we’re living, I wonder,
Can our world collectively experience post-traumatic growth? Can this be a collective awakening toward deeper love and greater meaning?
Those questions are not easily answered, so they linger.
Earlier this week, while scrolling through Instagram, I saw a post by @_the_open_space, that I found to be real, raw, beautiful, and inviting all at once. May connection be fullness for us, even if it’s just one, initial, small, honest step in a direction. That step and that direction could open up a larger process toward healing.
Here’s the post:
The text reads:
I will consider isolating when I feel overwhelmed by my inner & outer worlds.
I will sense myself folding inward & swallowing my feelings into some wide, open void of emptiness.
It will hurt on more levels that I can even comprehend or express.
I will yearn for the familiarity of numbness to ease both the original overwhelm & the sorrow of resolving my pain in this way.
I will consider writing this all down & sharing it with you.