I have hens. I have had hens for thirty-five years. I just love the girls. But with chicken food and water outside, it ends up being a “come and get it” smorgasbord for all the rats in the neighborhood. They live down under the chicken yard. And they apparently have tunnels all over; lots and lots going on under the surface. Eventually a few holes popped up here and there. We were concerned a little, but I was sure it would be fine. As long as it’s under the surface – out of sight – we can pretend it’s going to be fine. Then one day, Kevin was walking through the chicken yard, and he stepped on a rat hole, and, well, his whole foot went through because it happened to be where four tunnels all connected! Yikes! So, we put a rattrap near the hole and put a recycling tub over the top, and then we went on vacation. My friend that was caring for the hens while we were gone, texted and said that she lifted up the tub one day to check it out and the rattrap was gone! Nowhere to be found! It had been taken down into the cavern underneath the surface!
Pretending that there is nothing going on under the surface of our hearts – that we can just ignore the holes showing up here and there – will eventually lead to a foot breaking through to the realities that are hidden below. And the tricky thing is that relationship is where our rat holes are revealed! That’s why community and friendships can feel so hard. We have good intentions in our denial to be there for a friend, but it gets so complicated when the friend we are trying to support ends up falling into one of our rat holes where we had carefully placed a recycling tub or manhole cover over! (“Most people who think they are fully conscious or ‘smart’ and in control, have a big iron manhole cover over their unconscious.” See Part One for full quote.) Being honest with ourselves is one of the hardest people to be real with. But intimacy with a friend begins with honesty with me! Okay, the unconscious probably feels like a bottomless pit. That is why we feel afraid of it. Who knows what horrors are lurking there? But the lie is that if I keep the recycling tub, or even better, a manhole cover, over my unconscious, then I am safe from the mess and pain that lie under there. If only. It’s like water or smoke: it will seep out, dump out, or rage out, and probably on your best friend in the form of sheet rage! (Again, see Part One.) Then, if I am especially determined to keep all the unknown chaos buried in the rat cavern; I will often resort to blame. Who can I blame when I am hell-bent on locking down the hatch on all that I am afraid to feel? And when blame gets going, friendships end up in a mess and then there are new wounds and possibly new chaos to throw down in the cavern. And then, oh, the added pain of possibly a lost friendship!
Being as centered as you can, requires time – journaling, reading, silence, spending time in nature, walking – however you do it. And then add Grace. In grief, loss, and suffering with friends – it requires lots and lots of grace and mercy for them and for you. Perhaps you didn’t respond how you wish you would have; didn’t extend mercy to yourself. Perhaps she didn’t respond right and left you cold or shut you down. Extend tender compassion for each of you, forgiving our friends and ourselves constantly; daily. Practice forgiving yourself moment-by-moment. Anne Lamott says, that “earth is forgiveness school.” How you treat you is how you will treat your friends. If you are constantly judging, being harsh and unforgiving to yourself, that’s how you will treat your friends.
Another place to extend grace is when suffering brings doubts and questions. “How could God allow this to happen?” Allow space for your friend to question. Try not to let their questions make you afraid. No matter what truth you hold dear, or how harsh their questions may seem to you, allow grace and space for their pain, fear and doubts. Our fears can trigger each other, especially if it connects with my security or my certitudes. Extend the gift of freedom to express and explore. See them through eyes of mercy.
Anne Lamott shares, “If someone listens, deeply, you’ve been heard, which helps you absorb it, and you can lay it at the feet of the right god.” She also writes, “I’m a recovering higher power: I deeply want to fix and rescue everyone, but can’t. I have to believe that a real higher power is struggling in this as much as we are. But horribly, if healing and care are going to get done, it will be love working through us. Us! In our current condition, not down the road, when we are in the fullness of our restoration, in wholeness, compassionate detachment, patient amusement. Us, now. . . I don’t agree with the pace of how slowly we evolve toward patience, wisdom, forgiveness.”
We can also land in a place of judgment to create distance. If I can dismiss you or part of your story – then I don’t have to feel empathy for you. It releases me. I can walk away or just shut down. If I can judge your choices as foolish or unwise – then I don’t have to walk through the pain you are experiencing or move into grieving with you. My judging protects me; it justifies my need to not feel what you are enduring, and it keeps me distant, because if I get too close, it might require too much of me. But remember, being present with a friend does not mean you have to fix it. That is a hard one for me. I have always struggled with feeling responsible to DO something once I was aware of your pain. Sometimes a meal or flowers are a bright spot in a dark loss but it is actually an even greater gift to just sit and listen. It takes a lot more of me to choose to just sit and be present in the midst of suffering. It hurts to hurt. Try hard not to judge your friends loss. Honor any sorrow as unique and sacred.
Another way we tend to create distance from a friend suffering is by sharing an experience that we or someone we know, has experienced. We can get in a panic inside and unconsciously need out of the conversation. It feels to hard – perhaps it is triggering me – maybe touching a story within me that I have never dealt with. Some signs of you trying to escape: “Oh, my neighbor lost her son…”and we tell the story. Or “Oh, I had an Aunt that went through that. …” and we tell that story. ‘Know what happens? That turns the focus off of our friends present grief and onto me and what I am sharing. It shuts down my friend’s expression of her sorrow. Because now my friend is deciding how to respond and perhaps even ends up comforting me. It shuts down connection. Sharing platitudes are ways we can create distance and shut down connection: “God won’t give you more than you can handle”(which is not in the Bible, btw), or “It was meant to be,” or “Time heals all wounds,” or “Forgive and forget,” or “Everything always works out in the end,” to name a few. Let go of YOU and be with HER. It’s hard, hard, hard because often I am desperate to not feel the depths of what she is experiencing. And we can’t really connect when we want to stay on the surface.
In order to be able to BE with our friends, the goal is to extend compassion, which literally means “to suffer with.” Just being present with; letting go of our own responses to allow space for theirs. This may have to begin with you extending compassion to yourself. Caring for your heart is the way to be able “to suffer with.”
What made all the difference for me is when I realized it is not advice that we all need. Rather, it is to be seen. Because again, I can keep some distance if I give you advice. Man, it’s hard! Listen to your friend – see her – validate her suffering, pain, or struggle. There is so much loneliness in our world today. You would think that with so much technology, that we would be super connected. But things like Facebook are not real connection. I saw on a single friends Facebook page “It costs $0.00 to remind someone they aren’t alone in this world.” She is desperate to be seen. We are desperate to be seen.
I was with a friend that was going through a difficult and painful time and she was struggling deeply. She wanted things to be different but it was so scary to step out into a new place. She was in a dark place. One day she shared that she was in the place where it feels all is lost and nothing will ever be okay again. I found that I kept trying to talk her away from the edge; to speak some balance and hope into the ‘hopeless’ darkness she was buried in. But as I did that she would dig deeper into the pit of despair; she inched closer to the edge. “Well, this isn’t helping,” I thought. Then I let go of trying to pull her out. I let go. And I sat with her and I did what felt so counter-intuitive to me – I just began validating her pain. As she said, “It will never be okay, it’s always going to be awful, I’ll never be free of all this . . .” I said, “I know. This is awful. It is so painful and so terrible to be in this place. . .” And you know what happened? She began to drop her shoulders and grieve. The darkness softened just a little bit. And all I did was See her and validate how hard and terrible it is to be in this place.
What a gift we can give each other – to just See each other. No fixing; no pep talks; no advice. Back in my college classes they taught us to listen and then just paraphrase back what the person just shared. Active listening. Compassionate listening. And the gift is for both of us. I stop trying to think how to help you or fix your situation and actually hear what you are saying – and then all of a sudden, I am present. I am here with you. I am not off in my mind, trying to solve this tragic thing or trying to figure out how to give you hope. I am just here. Fully present. And you know what happens then? I feel your pain. I experience compassion. And I can just weep with you. But as long as I am trying to fix or help, it keeps me distanced. Wait a minute! Of course! Deep, deep down – the fixing is about me! If I can keep up in my head and try to ‘help’ in some way, I don’t have to feel what you are going through. I don’t have to be present. Because it hurts to hurt. It hurts to hurt with you. But, wow! What a gift we can give each other!
“We think that our job as humans is to avoid pain, our job as parents is to protect our children from pain, and our job as friends is to fix each other’s pain. Maybe that’s why we all feel like failures so often – because we all have the wrong job description of love. People who are hurting don’t need Avoiders, Protectors, or Fixers. What we need are patient, loving witnesses. People who sit quietly and hold space for us. People to stand in the helpless vigil to our pain.” Glennon Doyle