Recently, I listened to a dear friend confide the details of her newly broken heart. She had received the gift of having loved another deeply and now her loss was just as deep. I considered it a privilege to have been asked to been a witness to my friend’s loss, to hear her anger and her deep inner wisdom, to be able to encourage her to give all her emotions a space of honor and respect.
My friend’s recent heartbreak reminded me just how connected we really are. Her pain reminded me of my own still-healing heart. The truth is, we’re all somewhere on the spectrum of brokenhearted and heart-centered, of wholeness and illness, of being spiritually aware and immersed in a dark night of the soul.
Not that many years ago I could not have sat with someone in the midst of such pain and grief without jumping in with the need to “fix” or offer advice on how they might better deal with their loss. To be honest, I still struggle with the role of simply being a witness to someone in need. I’m uncomfortable watching those I love struggle. Suffering makes me uneasy and restless. I truly want others to find comfort, to feel better, but my discomfort, denied and left in the dark, conceals a hidden agenda to try to make others happy so that I can feel better. My discomfort, however, is a signal that I still have work to do.
When another’s experience bumps up against our pain it may comfort us to think, “That’s not me.” or “Thank God I’m over that.” or “I don’t do that anymore.” We might even hijack another’s experience with our own story by one-upping their experience. “You think that’s rough, let me tell you what I went through!” However, neither of these reactions bring any comfort to those struggling, neither brings them any closer to a resolution of life’s difficult passages. In my conversations with clients and loved ones about their darkest moments, they confide that mostly they just needed to be heard and, that the last thing they needed was advice, however well-meaning it might be.
Those deep in their emotional struggles often trigger our own unresolved grief, anger and betrayal wounds. When we see their pain we may reflexively react and try to divert them (and us) away from their painful present and our painful past. Unsolicited advice and one-upmanship, however, are two tools that only create distance between ourselves and those in pain and may be rooted in the need to believe we are beyond the deep pain we see reflected in others. We may want to believe we are separate, that we’re different–that because of everything we’ve gone through that we’re somehow special. Your unique life story makes you a fascinating person, it may be even the makings of a good book, but it doesn’t make you special. We’ve all suffered from love lost and confidences betrayed and rejection from those we thought we could count on. Some of our suffering has been terribly cruel, committed by those enmeshed in their own unexamined darkness but it is all, unfortunately, very common.
What our darkness is really calling for is recognition and healing. To think in terms of “me” and “not me” comes with a price. By denying our grief we create a blind spot to our loss which may result in some less than loving behaviors. In the denial of that loss we will close ourselves off from an awareness of any unhealed darkness that awaits us within. In our discomfort over another’s pain, we may create and maintain a level of denial, and, in the denial of our own pain we cannot be present for another’s.
The need to be seen as “special” only separates and alienates us from those who call on us for support. ‘You can’t possibly understand…you haven’t been through what I have.’ We are not the first to experience heartbreak or spiritual and emotional dark nights, we’re not the first to have been deeply betrayed in a moment of vulnerability by someone we trusted and sadly, we won’t be the last. Note: If being special seems of great importance to you perhaps you might explore whether your grief and pain are calling to you for their due season.
This might sound like the really bad news but it’s also the good news, too. Though our experience may be unique, our lessons are universal. While your experience may not separate or special, your past can help offer a unique insight into another’s pain and suffering. Because we’ve all shared in the experience of loss and betrayal we can then be more empathetic to those who are walking in their own spiritual or emotional darkness. When we become intimately acquainted with our past wounds and we have made peace with them, we can just be with someone who’s hurting instead having to fix them or offer unsolicited advice. But this first requires the hard work of mending our own hearts, of healing our wounds and betrayals.
So, if a friend calls on you in their hour of need be willing to be there, without the well-meaning advice and sparkling insights, without any offer to ‘pull it together’ or a with a reminder that someone else has always had it worse. If another’s experience has triggered discomfort in you, make note of it, and vow to revisit it later to give it its due. For the time being, simply sit with others as they work through their pain. Instead, just be present. Sit with your discomfort, resist the urge to fix others so that you can feel better. Give the gift of deep listening. Being heard will be the best gift you can possibly give them.
Remember, there’s a saint and a sinner in all of us. It’s just that sometimes the needle points a little further in one direction than the other.
Blessings and Grace,
“Miracles are healing because they supply a lack; they are performed by those who temporarily have more for those who temporarily have less.” -Principle 8. from A Course In Miracles
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