vulnerable

Finding Ourselves in Loss

What do we say when there is a tragedy, a death, something really bad happens to people we care about? 

Most of us are acutely aware of our own struggles and we are preoccupied with our own problems. We sympathize with ourselves because we see our own difficulties so clearly. But Ian MacLaren noted wisely, “Let us be kind to one another, for most of us are fighting a hard battle.”

When I was younger I would try to draw on my capacity for empathy, but I had a fairly dry aquifer of emotional intelligence. Life, death, disease, and unexpected mishaps were frankly just part of the hand you were dealt. Our feline life expectancy dropped a year or two each chapter of our experience until we accept we have one life to live and it is very short.

As we mature and age we are exposed to more suffering, more tragedy, more death. It is a jolting reminder of our mortality and the mortality of the ones around us. We feel more compelled to express our sympathies and condolences. To offer support to the survivors. We struggle with doing the right thing at the right time. We write notes, emails, sign cards, and say things to comfort family and friends. Sometimes we rely on Hallmark for the words, say or write the same thing we always say, or we do nothing. At least for me,  it is an awkward process.

What can I say? What should I say? What can I do? What should I do?

I have learned so much being the recipient of these communications. Nothing like learning about yourself by how you are treated.

The golden rule always applies. Say/do unto others as you would have them say/do unto you. What would comfort me?

A rude awakening for me is how selfish I have been and others can be in trying to comfort each other. It is not about me. It never really is. But we can lead with "Me too", or "I know how you feel". 

The oddity of our clumsy and sometimes hurtful attempts to help is this: we have clear ideas from what has helped us in our suffering, but we do not adopt it when seeking to love others. We do not always speak to others in the way we would like to be spoken to.  Edward T. Welch

I remember a comedy routine, where a distant friend goes up to the grieving mother of a murdered child at the vigil to pay his respects. He gets nervous, then tongued tied, and blurts out, "I apologize."  Not the same as "I am sorry." :)

What I learned and others have taught me--Less is more. Stop before you start into your robotic motor mouth routine. Put your well-intentioned pie hole on silent. Silence is better than words. A hug says more than any profound phrases. Everyone deals with grief and suffering in their own ways. But there is a universal understanding that your very presence is more powerful than anything you say.  Bearhug

"I'm sorry." Is enough. 

Again, stop and look both ways before you stick your foot in your "me too" mouth. 

I really try to give people the benefit of the doubt. I hope people have done the same for me! A dear friend, expressed her condolences and tried to comfort me. Then she took the safety off of her verbal trigger and away she went. "Yeah, not a day goes by where I don't cry about my husband." I knew what she was trying to do, but it was our first conversation and the second thing she said.

"How are you doing, today?" The today part is sensitive to what is happening. "How are you?" is auto-pilot and invokes the silent "How do you think I am?!!"

Do not say: “If you need anything, please call me, anytime.” Another well intended thought but.........

– If ‘comforters’ knew anything about real hardship, they would know that sufferers usually don’t know what they want or need.

– If comforters knew anything about the sufferer, they would know what the sufferer wants or needs. 

– If comforters really knew the sufferer, they would know that he or she would never make the call. Never.  Tara Barthel

In his book, "The Reality Slap," Russ Harris presents two lists — the first, a few responses that genuinely make you feel supported and understood; and the second, a number of responses that, although meant to be helpful, aren't really all that compassionate. Let's start with the less compassionate responses (many of which I myself am guilty of, and if we're being honest, most of us have said at times):

  • Telling you to "think positively"
  • Giving advice: "What you should do is this, "Have you thought about doing such and such?"
  • Discounting your feelings: "No use crying over spilled milk," "It's not that bad," "Cheer up!"
  • Trumping your pain: "Oh yes, I've been through this many times myself. Here's what worked for me."
  • Telling you to get over it: "Move on," "Let it go," "Isn't it time you got over this?"

Here are some compassionate responses highlighted in Harris' book:

  • Asking how you feel
  • Giving you a hug, embrace, placing an arm around you or holding your hand
  • Validating your pain: "This must be so hard for you" or "I can't begin to imagine what you're going through."
  • Sharing their own reactions: "I'm so sorry, "I'm so angry," "I feel so helpless; I wish there was something I could do," or even "I don't know what to say."
  • Creating space for your pain: "Do you want to talk about it?" It's OK to cry," or, "We don't have to talk; I'm happy to just sit here with you."
  • Offering support: "Is there anything I can do to help?"

I took a thanatology class in college---Death and Dying. I learned about the 5 stages of dying that was asserted by Elizabeth Kubler-Ross. Most of us have heard this. Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression, Acceptance. It made so much sense to me. It clearly applied to romantic break-ups :) But death? And the grieving? 

Pauline Boss' research disputes the application of these 5 stages to grief. That Kubler-Ross never intended to have them applied to grieving. We all want steps and stages. We want a linear routine to replace the organic reality. Boss' basic thought is closure for grief is a myth. While time heals, you will never be finished with your grief--and closure is only good in real estate. You don't want to forget or get over it. I know there are nuances here but really important ones. 

This myth of closure has helped me be more sensitive, more compassionate. Time heals but never erases. I know this to be true.

A colleague who did not know my Dad, said "Sorry to hear about your Dad. Tell me about him." I smiled, because I got to tell a Dad story and share my love and gratitude. For me, that was one of the nicest and most comforting things anyone said to me.

Part of building and maintaining a vibrant, authentic and altruistic network is our ability to connect to support one another. No time is more crucial than in times of loss and suffering. 

Remind yourself what would comfort you. Stop, pause, and be present. Say less. Suppress your needs and surrender to the needs of the other. Good advice for all of us almost all of the time. Be kind: For we are all fighting great battles and carrying great burdens that are not known to one another. (my interpretation of Philo)

Thanks for reading. John


Numb and Number

Probably my age and stage in life but I am getting more sensitive (that's very funny John). No seriously I cry at TV ads and even the mention of tear jerking stories. I am sure I am going through some type of hormonal change (no jokes please). But I know I am much more aware of the preciousness and speed of life and my awareness about the world around me has been heightened. I see, hear, feel, and understand more--at least I think so. 

Vulnerability is a word I encounter and use more often. It applies to so much of what I do and what I am thinking about. 

vul·ner·a·ble         ˈvəln(ə)rəb(ə)l/
adjective
susceptible to physical or emotional harm.

synonyms: helpless, defenseless, powerless, impotent, weak, susceptible

person(s) in need of special care, support, or protection because of age, disability, or risk of abuse or neglect. Broken heart

We are all vulnerable. There are the truly vulnerable--those who have little or no support systems or safety nets. People who have extraordinary suffering daily. And there is the condition of connecting with the real feelings we have with the suffering around us.There are the vulnerable who need our help. And yet we all need to become more vulnerable--to be more susceptible to our feelings empathy and compassion. Vulnerable are people who are endangered and need help to advance their lives. Vulnerable is also a state of mind and heart that enable us to help the vulnerable.

Still with me? 

A lot of guilty people, including me, start sentences with "It breaks my heart that......." We need to break our hearts---break them open to the truth and realities of what we want, who we are, and what we are doing about it.

Our capacity for wholehearted living can never be greater than our willingness to be broken-hearted.  Brene Brown

From Parker Palmer's book the Healing the Heart of Democracy:

“Heart” comes from the Latin cor and points not merely to our emotions but to the core of the self, that center place where all of our ways of knowing converge—intellectual, emotional, sensory, intuitive, imaginative, experiential, relational, and bodily, among others. The heart is where we integrate what we know in our minds with what we know in our bones, the place where our knowledge can become more fully human. Cor is also the Latin root from which we get the word courage. When all that we understand of self and world comes together in the center place called the heart, we are more likely to find the courage to act humanely on what we know."
 
We are all numb and number. We suffer from an overdose of need. So we shut down our feelings to protect ourselves--or so we think. We use our devices, vices, and bad habits to distract us from reality. We objectify people in need and compartmentalize our feelings to keep moving on. As vulnerability grows around us, our ability to be vulnerable shrinks. We build thicker castle walls and deeper moats to protect us from these emotions. There is an internal war of trying to feel and trying not to feel too much. Numbness is winning.

My favorite quote:

Comfort the afflicted (the vulnerable) and afflict the comfortable (to make us vulnerable). --HL Mencken  I added the parenthetical comments to show this dichotomy of vulnerability.

You still with me? 

How do we help those in  need  and our own need to help? 

We all hesitate to say and do what we think--the things we know are right. We try to suppress our feelings, or hope that the moment will pass. We pretend that the moment and feelings do not matter. We regret those lost moments.

Brene Brown has done groundbreaking research on this latter vulnerability. Her Ted talk is one of the most viewed ever. She found that vulnerability is the source of great insights and development and ultimately a chance to be courageous and say and do things we want to do. 

Excerpt from Brene Brown: I cannot find a single example of courage, moral courage, spiritual courage, leadership courage, relational courage, I cannot find a single example of courage in my research that was not born completely of vulnerability. And so I think we buy into some mythology about vulnerability being weakness and being gullibility and being frailty because it gives us permission not to do it.

Please listen to this interview of Brene Brown conducted by the inimitable Krista Tippett. If you are slightly open to becoming more vulnerable this will open your mind and your heart.

We share everything but not what we really think and feel. We conform to the crowd not because we agree with them.

My boss calls it phony nice. But it is more than being honest with one another. It is being honest with oneself.

The present offers so many moments to engage our compassion, empathy, and energy for life. But we squander them.  I am trying to change before it is too late. 

Awareness is step one.

Force yourself to follow your heart to learn the realities of the vulnerable and become vulnerable. Push yourself into the worlds of suffering you care about. Surrender to the feelings and let them inform you and what you do. 

Not talking about serving soup at the midnight mission--although that would not hurt. I am talking about diving into the needs of your network and listen-- before you try to fix things!

Be kind for everyone you meet is fighting a great battle--a battle you know little about. attributed to Philo

What are other people's battles? Seek them out to understand and help.

What are your battles? What are you numb about? What is your heart saying? Help yourself.

Until we understand our battles we can not connect or mentor. We can not help one another. 

Compassion literally means to suffer with others. We cannot have compassion.

Becoming more vulnerable enables us to help the vulnerable. Every person has a battle. Every person has dreams. Every person wants to have an open heart and the courage to act on their true goodness.

In my greyness I am coming to realize that Brene Brown and Parker Palmer are right. Pursue vulnerability by becoming more vulnerable. Struggle over real things and real feelings is a battle, a battle worth fighting, battles we must try to win over numbness.

Thanks for reading. John