Melancholy: a feeling of pensive sadness, typically with no obvious cause
That sounds about right for my state of mind this past week. I hesitate to call it depression, because it doesn’t feel that heavy, but there is definitely “pensive sadness” going on and it has no obvious cause.
When this familiar sense of melancholy comes at this time of year, I usually chalk it up to the end of winter, when I’m a little more sluggish from not taking as many long walks in the woods and not getting as much sunshine as I need. I get a little imbalanced when I lose my connection to the natural world. I’m pretty sure that it will pass soon (Spring always revives me), but for now, my creativity is low, my resilience isn’t what it normally is, my emotions are a little tender, and I feel disconnected. I stare at blank pages when I should be writing, I crawl into bed earlier than usual, I cry unexpectedly, and I watch too much Netflix.
A couple of things happened last week that were quite minor, but because of my state of mind, I took them more personally than I normally would. Though none of the people involved meant any harm, my tenderness left me feeling a little lonely and a little rejected. There was no true rejection involved (I still feel well loved by them), but in the middle of my fragility, it’s always easier to make up stories that align with how I’m experiencing the world. Feelings of disconnection often lead to greater disconnection.
Not long ago, I was on the other side of that story, inadvertently wounding someone who was going through her own state of tenderness. Unaware of her emotional state, I said something that normally would have been received with ease, but instead carried some wounding.
“At two, you’re at abstraction.” That’s a line from a Sara Groves song (that I think she borrowed from someone else, but I can’t find the source) that points to the impossibility of fully understanding another person’s reality. Another person’s pain, joy, love, trauma, history – they’re all just abstract concepts for us because we have never lived inside of them. We can never really “walk a mile in another person’s shoes”.
Despite our best efforts to be compassionate and understanding, our well-meaning words can land the wrong way and leave a person feeling wounded, lonely, misunderstood, defensive, angry, etc. That’s one of the reasons why, in our efforts to hold space for other people, we need to avoid falling into the trap of taking responsibility for their emotional response to our words or actions. Each of us is a sovereign individual with our own stories, our own interpretations, and our own emotions and when we take too much responsibility for another person, we diminish their sovereignty.
At a workshop a few weeks ago, Dr. Gabor Maté talked about how trauma can shape a person’s world and change the way they respond to stimuli. When a person grew up with trauma (either in the form of a traumatic event, or as a result of being raised by caregivers with unresolved trauma) their fight/flight/freeze instincts are heightened and they are inclined to over-react to stimuli that brings them back to their traumatic memories. Unresolved trauma, he said, makes it impossible for us to be in the present moment. “When we’re triggered, the emotions that show up are those of the abandoned child. We don’t react to what happened – we react to our interpretation of what happened based in our traumatic memory.”
Even compassionate people can inadvertently trigger someone’s trauma. Think about the last time you said something to another person that you thought was fairly innocuous and they reacted with defensiveness or anger that seemed out of proportion for the moment. There’s a good chance that there was something in what you said that triggered an old wound that they may not even know they still have. In that instant, that person was not the mature adult you thought you were talking to – they were a scared child relying on an instinctual response for their own protection. While they may need your empathy in that moment, and you might make a mental note to adjust your behaviour in the future to avoid triggering them further, you can’t take their autonomy away by trying to fix their problem for them.
When I used to teach a university-level course in communication, I would always start with the following diagram to help my students understand that, in every communication, there are complexities and potential pitfalls that we can’t fully anticipate or mitigate.
(Note: this is my version of a popular model used in communication training, but I don’t know the original source.)
Each of us lives within a unique field of experience that may overlap with other people’s experience, but is never exactly the same. When I want to communicate with you, my intended message is shaped and encoded by my field of experience, which includes factors such as my gender, race, culture, disabilities, lived experiences, language ability, emotional state, etc.
I choose the channel of communication to best offer the message (ie. will I make a phone call, wait until I can talk to you in person, or send an email?). If I am compassionate, I will consider your field of experience when choosing the channel (ie. if you are hearing impaired, a phone call might not be the best method), but I’m limited in how much I can understand your reality so I may make mistakes. On top of that, no matter how carefully I encode the message and how intentional I am about the channel of communication, there is always unexpected noise that can disrupt or distract us at any moment in the process (ie. a child needing attention in the middle of a personal phone call, a disturbing story on the news, a misunderstanding, etc.).
The message crosses over to you and is, in turn, shaped and decoded by your own field of experience and your current circumstance. As I mentioned above, for example, you might be going through a period of tenderness that I had no way of knowing about when I initiated the communication. Even the most well-intentioned communication can go astray, and by the time you’ve decoded it, it may have a very different shape than what I intended. Much of our encoding and decoding processes happen in mere seconds during the course of a conversation, so we aren’t aware of all of what has shaped and reshaped what’s passed between us.
If you choose to engage in two-way communication, you send your own message across the reverse path, back through our fields of experience, risking similar misinterpretation, triggering, etc.
Given the potential complexity of even the simplest conversation, and given the fact that only a small portion of the process is within our control or within our conscious understanding, what can we do to improve the process? How can we be better communicators who wound others less often and receive fewer messages as wounds?
When you are the sender of the message:
• Pay attention to how your message is being shaped by your field of experience.
• Be humble, recognizing the limitation of your understanding of the other person’s field of experience.
• Especially where the differences are vast and there may be power imbalances, do your best to learn about the other person’s field of experience instead of passing judgement (especially if you are the one who holds more power).
• Be aware of the other person’s emotional response and check in when something doesn’t seem to land well, but don’t judge or try to control the emotion.
• Take responsibility for what you’ve said and allow the other person to take responsibility for their response.
• Allow for processing time in the conversation. Pauses may help to alleviate misunderstanding.
When you are the receiver of the message:
• Recognize the limitations that are at play in the sender’s lack of understanding of your field of experience.
• If you trust that the person will honour your current state of mind (ie. if there’s grief, depression, etc. going on), let them know that you may be limited in your capacity to receive.
• If you have a strong emotional response to the message, pause for a moment to check in with yourself. Recognize that the first reaction may be your instinctual desire to protect yourself and may not be fully based in the current situation.
• Hold the other person accountable for their words (especially in the case of harsh or oppressive language) and recognize when it may be in your best interest to stand up for yourself and/or walk away.
• If there is a misunderstanding and the relationship is important to you, reflect back to the person what your interpretation of the message is, based on your field of experience, and offer them an opportunity to reframe it.
• Take the time you need before sending a message back.
• Remember that you have a right to set boundaries and protect yourself.
Each situation is different, and based on how valuable the relationship with the other person is, you may or may not want to invest in the effort it takes to work through misunderstanding. If, for example, you’ve been verbally assaulted by a stranger at a bus stop, you probably won’t have any interest in figuring out how to communicate across your differing fields of experience. If, on the other hand, you love and trust the other person and believe that the relationship will be strengthened by deeper understanding, you’ll want to invest more time and energy in cutting through the noise.
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A few weeks ago, I wrote about the importance of finding your tribe – people who love you just the way you are and who cheer you on as you do courageous things.
Tribe-building is important and valuable, but it only takes you part way down the path to an openhearted life.
This week, I’ve been contemplating what we should do with the people outside of our tribes.
It’s cozy and warm inside a tribe, and the people are supportive and non-threatening, so it’s tempting to simply hide there and close off from the rest of the world. When you’re hurting, that might be the right thing to do for awhile – to protect yourself until you have healed enough to step outside of the circle.
But the problem with staying there too long is that it creates a world of “us and them”. When you stay too close to your own tribe, it becomes easier and easier to justify your own choices and opinions and more and more difficult to understand people who think differently from you. Before long, you’ve become suspicious of everyone outside of your tribe, and when their actions threaten your way of life, you do whatever it takes to protect yourself. Fear breeds in a closed-off life.
Last week, I knew it was time to challenge myself to step outside my tribe. I’d been playing it safe too much lately, so when I saw a Facebook posting for an open house at the local mosque, I decided that was a good place to start. I shared the information with friends, but chose not to bring anyone with me. Bringing friends with me into unfamiliar territory makes me less open to conversations with people who are different from me and I didn’t want that – I wanted to go in with an open, unguarded heart. That’s one of the reasons I’ve learned to love solo traveling – it’s scary at first, but it opens me to a whole world of new opportunities and friendships that don’t happen as naturally when I’m hiding behind the safety of a group.
I have traveled in predominately Muslim parts of the world and have always been warmly received, so I knew that the open house would be a pleasant experience. It turned out to be even more pleasant than I’d expected.
First there was Mariam, a young university student who served as tour guide to me and a small group of strangers. Mariam’s easy smile and warm personality made us all feel instantly comfortable. She lead us through the gym to the prayer room and told us why she’s happy that the women pray in a separate area from the men. “I want to be close to God when I pray, not distracted by who might be looking at me or bumping into me.” Before the tour was over, Mariam hugged me twice and I felt like I’d made a new friend.
Then there was the grinning young man at the table by the sign that read “your name in Arabic”. His name now escapes me, but I can tell you he never stopped smiling through our whole conversation and was one of the friendliest young men I’ve met in a long time. He told me, while he wrote my name, that he’d learned some of his Arabic from cartoons. Growing up in Ontario, he’d preferred Arabic cartoons to Barney or Sesame Street.
At the “free henna” table, I met Saadia, who moved here from Pakistan three years ago because she and her husband wanted to give their children a better chance at a good education. Her husband is a doctor who’s still trying to cross all of the hurdles that will allow him to practice in Canada. Before our conversation was over, Saadia had given me her phone number in case I ever want to invite her to my home to give me and my friends hennas.
What struck me, as I left the mosque, was how much grace and courage it takes, when your people have become the object of racism, fear, and oppression, to open your hearts, homes, and gathering places to strangers. Instead of hiding within the safety of their own tribe and justifying their need for protection and safety from others, the local Muslim community threw their doors and hearts open wide and said “let’s be friends. We are not afraid of you – please don’t be afraid of us.”
I experienced the same grace and courage among the Indigenous people of our community last Spring after we were named the “most racist city in Canada”. Instead of retreating into the safety of their tribes, they welcomed many of us into openhearted healing circles. Instead of being angry, they taught us that reconciliation starts with forgiveness and the courage to risk friendships across tribal lines.
I will be forever grateful to Rosanna, who invited me to co-host a series of meaningful conversations with her, to Leonard who handed me a drum and welcomed me to play in honour of Mother Earth’s heartbeat, to Gramma Shingoose who gave me a stone shaped like a heart and shared the story of her healing journey after a childhood in residential school, to Brian who welcomed me into the sweat lodge, and to many others who opened their hearts and reached across the artificial divide between Indigenous and settler.
The more I’ve had the privilege of building friendships with openhearted people whose world looks different from mine, the bigger, more beautiful, and less fearful my life has become.
This week, I’ve read Gloria Steinem’s memoir, My Life on The Road and there is so much in it that resonates with the way I choose to live my life. It’s a beautiful reflection of how her life has been changed by the people she has encountered while on the road. “Taking to the road – by which I mean letting the road take you – changed who I thought I was. The road is messy in the way that real life is messy. It leads us out of denial and into reality, out of theory and into practice, out of caution and into action, out of statistics and into stories – in short, out of our heads and into our hearts. It’s right up there with life-threatening emergencies and truly mutual sex as a way of being fully alive in the present.”
Another quote speaks to how much broader her thinking has become because of her encounters on the road. “What we’ve been told about this country is way too limited by generalities, sound bites, and even the supposedly enlightened idea that there are two sides to every question. In fact, many questions have three or seven or a dozen sides. Sometimes I think the only real division into two is between people who divide everything into two and those who don’t.”
We don’t have to spend as much time traveling as Gloria Steinem does in order to live this way – we simply have to open our hearts to the people and experiences in our own communities that have the potential to stretch and change us and lead us past a life with only two sides. Sometimes a conversation with the next door neighbour is enough to help us see the world through more open eyes.
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p.s. Would you consider supporting our fundraiser to sponsor a Syrian refugee family?
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Yesterday, after dropping my daughter off at the pool, I went to a coffee shop to try to get some writing done. Unable to focus, though, I gave in to the distraction of social media, and when I did, I found myself getting more and more angry. I was angry at the terrorists who’ve torn apart so many people’s lives and instilled fear in so many more. And I was angry at the closed-minded people who are responding to the terrorism by becoming protectionist and prejudiced and not offering safe homes for the millions of refugees running away from the terrorists.
Because I was angry anyway, I started extending that anger to people closer to home – people in the coffee shop and people in my family whose actions were disappointing me at the time. Anger needs to feed itself, so it looks for more victims and more people to blame.
When I get angry (or fearful, or sad, or any of those intense emotions that sometimes feel scary and overwhelming), I’m tempted to shut down, to guard my heart and protect myself from further wounding. I’m tempted to pull away from people and become even more self-sufficient. And I’m tempted to find reasons to hate people and blame them for all of the ills of the world.
Last night, I checked out for awhile (Netflix is good for that), but this morning, I knew I needed to do something that would help me resist the temptation to shut down.
The only antidote I know for this kind of reaction in me is to dare to live with an open heart. It’s the hardest choice to make when I’m angry, but the more open my heart is, the less likely I am to let the anger and fear fester and get bigger.
The poet Mark Nepo tells us to be more like fish. “As fish must keep their gills open in order to survive moving through the water, humans must keep their hearts open in order to move through the difficult and wondrous river of experience. Letting life move through an open heart is how we make medicine out of our suffering.”
This morning I decided to be more like a fish.
I posted this on Facebook: “My heart’s been heavy this week, witnessing so much fear, hatred and closed-mindedness. So… let’s do something different. Tell me how you’ve seen love and openheartedness appear this week.”
The responses were simple and breathtaking. One shared about the friend who showed up to help her welcome her new dog. Another applauded her daughter who’d raised $1500 for a rescue mission that helps women get out of the sex trade. Another had seen an elderly white man help a young black boy tie his tie. Still others shared about kindhearted daycare workers, free clinics, supportive husbands, gracious sign-holders, and smiling grand-babies.
My heart started feeling a little bigger and the fresh air moved through my gills as I let the angry air out. I brought that feeling into my work, and was soon coaching clients who shared their vulnerable and brave stories of healing from past abuse and daring to step into their artist calling later in life. My heart grew healthier and stronger with each story that passed through me.
We build resilience when we respond to fear and anger with an open heart. We have to dare to be open to people’s stories and dare to be vulnerable with our own.
But there’s a harder part to this openhearted living that goes beyond being vulnerable with those people who feel safe, and that’s what I had to challenge myself with once the anger had subsided.
Living with an open heart also means daring to be compassionate with those who think differently from me and those who respond to their own fear and anger differently from me.
It wasn’t hard for me to extend compassion to my Facebook friends or coaching clients or even to the innocent Islamic people who are now facing prejudice and hatred because they are associated with the terrorists. Those people are safe and don’t require me to stretch too much. What I find to be much harder is to extend compassion to the terrorists themselves and to the people who are meeting hatred with hatred, spouting racist rhetoric and closing their doors to the Syrian people.
I had to dig deep to remember that these people are all responding to their own fears in the way that makes the most sense for them. Extending compassion does not mean that I need to agree with them or justify their actions, but it means that I have to dare to open my heart enough to see the hurt that turned them into the people they are.
Fear changes us. It makes us fierce in ways that sometimes surprise and even scare us.
When I was sexually assaulted a number of years ago, I went home to the farm to be with my parents. My pacifist, Mennonite dad, who would never allow a gun in the house and who never physically hurt anyone, admitted later that he was shocked by the realization that he was capable of killing another man. He’d never had that temptation before.
When people hurt or threaten people you love, or even if you simply perceive them to do so, it causes fear to rise up and you are suddenly not the rational, peace-loving person you always thought you were. Suddenly, you can think of only one thing – to keep your family safe at all costs. I get that, and I see it happening on a global scale in response to the terrorism we’ve witnessed. I also assume (though I can’t pretend to understand it) that it must be happening in the hearts of the terrorists. Something has made them so fearful and angry that the only response that makes sense to them is to destroy the people and the culture that pose the greatest threat.
There are so many players in this unfolding drama that I don’t understand, but when I remember how my dad was changed in that moment when he realized that someone had raped and tried to murder his daughter, it allows me to open my heart with some compassion to those who are responding out of their own deep wounds. Instead of opening their hearts and living like fish, they chose to close them and to allow the blackness to grow and consume them.
I wish those terrorists and those who are responding with hatred had all had fathers like mine. Perhaps they would have learned to make other choices.
My dad’s surprising rage was not the most memorable lesson of the day. The wisdom that I received from my dad came in the actions he chose just after learning that I’d been raped and nearly killed. After giving me a hug, and then leaving me to my mom’s nurturing arms, he went outside to feed the pigs. I wasn’t there when he fed them, so I don’t know whether he was crying or screaming or throwing things while he fed the pigs, I only know that he fed them. And, because I know my Dad, I expect he was also praying.
He fed the pigs because he needed some physical activity to dispel some of the rage. And he did it because he needed to do something useful and mundane in that moment when his world had been turned upside down. And he prayed because he knew he could only dispel the darkness in his own heart with the help of a Higher Power.
Once he was done, he came back inside with a calmer mind and a heart that dared to remain open. His God and his pigs helped him with that.
When the fear and rage and pain wash over you, it might feel impossible to remember what Mark Nepo said about living with your heart open to the world. Those are the times when you first need to feed the pigs. Or feed the children. Or go for a long walk in the woods. Or make art or music. Or dance. Or swing a hammer.
Do something to alchemize the pain, and then reach for a Higher Power who can help you change your heart. Once you’ve done those things, come back with a calmer mind and a heart that dares to remain open.
Lashing out in your pain will only create more pain and will never solve the problem. Only living with an open heart will allow you to move on without wounding anyone.
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“…whenever I dehumanize another, I necessarily dehumanize all that is human—including myself.”
– from the book Anatomy of Peace
This week, I’ve been thinking about how we hold space when there is an imbalance in power or privilege.
This has been a long-time inquiry for me. Though I didn’t use the same language at the time, I wrote my first blog post about how I might hold space for people I was about to meet in Africa whose socio-economic status was very different from mine.
I had long dreamed of going to Africa, but ten and a half years ago, when I was getting ready for my first trip, I was feeling nervous about it. I wasn’t nervous about snakes or bugs or uncomfortable sleeping arrangements – I was nervous about the way relationships would unfold.
I was traveling with the non-profit I worked for at the time and we were visiting some of the villages where our funding had supported hunger-related projects. That meant that, in almost every encounter I’d have, I would represent the donor and they would be the recipients. I was pretty sure that those two predetermined roles would change how we’d interact. My desire to be in authentic and reciprocal relationship with them would be hindered by their perceived need to “keep the donor happy”.
That challenge was further exacerbated by:
- a history of colonization in the countries where I was visiting, which meant that my white skin would automatically be associated with the colonizers
- my own history of growing up in a church where white missionaries often visited and told us about how they were working in Africa to convert the heathens
In that first blog post, I wrestled with what it would mean to carry that baggage with me to Africa. I ended the post with this… I won’t expect that my English words are somehow endued with greater wisdom than theirs. I will listen and let them teach me. I will open my heart to the hope and the hurt. I will tread lightly on their soil and let the colours wash over me. I will allow the journey to stretch me and I will come back larger than before.
In another blog post, after the trip, I wrote about how hard it was to find the right words to say to the people who’d gathered at a food distribution site…What can I say that is worthy of this moment? How can I assure them I long for friendship, not reverence?
That trip, and other subsequent ones to Ethiopia, India, and Bangladesh, stretched and challenged me. Each time I went, I wrestled with the way that my privilege and access to power would change my interactions. I became more and more intentional about entering into relationships with humility, grace, and openheartedness. I did my best to treat each person with dignity and respect, to learn from them, and to challenge my own assumptions and prejudice.
Nowadays, I don’t have the same travel opportunities, but I still find myself in a variety of situations in which there is imbalance. Sometimes I have been the one with less privilege and power (like when I used to work in corporate environments with male scientists, or when I traveled with and offered support to mostly male politicians). Other times, I have access to more power and/or privilege than others in the room (like when I am the teacher at the front of the classroom, or I am meeting with people of Indigenous descent). In each situation, I find myself aware of how the imbalance impacts the way we interact.
This week in Canada, the final report on the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s findings related to Residential Schools has come out and it raises this question for all of us across the country. Justice Murray Sinclair, chair of the commission, has urged us to take action to address the cultural genocide of residential schools on aboriginal communities. Those are strong words (and necessary, I believe) and they call all of us to acknowledge the divide in power and privilege between the Indigenous people and those of us who are Settlers in this nation.
How do we hold space in a country in which there has been genocide? How do we who are settlers acknowledge our own privilege and the wounds inflicted by our ancestors in an effort to bring healing to us all?
This is life-long learning for me, and I don’t always get it right (as I shared after our first race relations conversation), but I keep trying because I know this is important. I know this matters, no matter which side of the power imbalance I stand on.
If we want to see real change in the world, we need to know how to be in meaningful relationships with people who stand on the other side of the power imbalance.
Here are some of my thoughts on what it takes to hold space for people when there is a power imbalance.
- Don’t pretend “we’re all the same”. White-washing or ignoring the imbalance in the room does not serve anyone. Acknowledging who holds the privilege and power helps open the space for more honest dialogue. If you are the person with power, say it out loud and do your best to share that power. Listen more than you speak, for example, or decide that any decisions that need to be made will be made collectively. If you lack power, say that too, in as gracious and non-blaming a way as possible.
- Change the physical space. It may seem like a small thing to move the chairs, to step away from the podium, or to step out from behind a desk, but it can make a big difference. A conversation in circle, where each person is at the same level, is very different from one in which a person is at the front of the room and others are in rows looking up at that person. In physical space that suggests equality, people are more inclined to open up.
- Invite contribution from everyone. Giving each person a voice (by using a talking piece when you’re sharing stories, for example) goes a long way to acknowledging their dignity and humanity. Allowing people to share their gifts (by hosting a potluck, or asking people to volunteer their organizational skills, for example) makes people feel valued and respected.
- Create safety for difficult conversations. When you enter into challenging conversations with people on different sides of a power imbalance, you open the door for anger, frustration, grief, and blaming. Using the circle to hold such conversations helps diffuse these heightened emotions. Participants are invited to pour their stories and emotions into the center instead of dumping them on whoever they choose to blame.
- Don’t pretend to know how the other person feels. Each of us has a different lived experience and the only way we can begin to understand what another person brings to the conversation (no matter what side of the imbalance they’re on) is to give them space to share their stories. Acting like you already know how they feel dismisses their emotions and will probably cause them to remain silent.
- Offer friendship rather than sympathy. If you want to build a reciprocal relationship, sympathy is the wrong place to start. Sympathy is a one-way street that broadens the power gap between you. Friendship, on the other hand, has well-worn paths in both directions. Sympathy builds power structures and walls. Friendship breaks down the walls and puts up couches and tables. Sympathy creates a divide. Friendship builds a bridge.
- Even if you have little access to power or privilege, trust that your listening and compassion can impact the outcome. I was struck by a recent story of how a group of Muslims invited anti-Muslim protestors with guns into their mosque for evening prayers. An action like that can have significant impact, cracking open the hearts of those who’ve let themselves be ruled by hatred.
- Don’t be afraid to admit that you don’t know the way through. Real change happens only when there is openness to paths that haven’t been discovered yet. If you walk into a conversation assuming you know how it needs to turn out, you won’t invite authenticity and openness into the room. Your vulnerability and openheartedness invites it in others.
- Don’t try this alone. This kind of work requires strong partnerships. People from all sides of the power or privilege divide need to not only be in the conversation, but be part of the hosting and planning teams. That’s the only way to ensure all voices are heard and all cultural sensitivities are honoured.
I welcome your thoughts on this. What have you found that makes a difference for conversations where there is an imbalance?
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“In a futile attempt to erase our past, we deprive the community of our healing gift. If we conceal our wounds out of fear and shame, our inner darkness can neither be illuminated nor become a light for others.” – Brennan Manning
On Sunday I sat in a circle of wounded healers. These were the openhearted people who had gathered for our second Race to Peace
It started with Rosanna Deerchild, the first to offer healing out of her own wounds. In the Maclean’s article that named our city the most racist in Canada, Rosanna shared how she has faced racism on a weekly basis. “Someone honks at me, or yells out ‘How much’ from a car window, or calls me a stupid squaw, or tells me to go back to the rez. Every time, it still feels like getting punched in the face.”
When Rosanna’s face appeared, without her blessing, on the front cover of Maclean’s, and she was suddenly thrust into the spotlight as the “face of racism”, she made a courageous choice. Instead of responding with outrage, she decided to reach out with healing. She offered to host dinner and a conversation with people in the city about race relations, and out of that willingness, Race to Peace was born.
Rosanna’s choice inspired others to make similar choices. In the circle that gathered on Sunday, there were many who had been wounded and are now willing to extend healing.
There was the man who’d gotten a girl pregnant at 13, joined a gang, landed in jail, and was now studying to be a social worker so that he could help other young men stay out of gangs and jail and make a positive impact on the world.
There was the woman who’d immigrated from the Philippines and had experienced racism in trying to find a job in Canada and wanted to support other job-seekers with similar stories.
There was the man who’d experienced conflict in El Salvador who is now passionate about peace in his adopted country.
There was my husband, who dropped out of school in junior high because of his own anxiety and insecurity, found the courage to go to university as a 40 year old father, and now teaches in a jail.
And there was me… once raped by an indigenous man and determined not to let that make me bitter toward people of his race or gender.
The term “wounded healer” comes out of the work of psychologist Carl Jung, who believed that analysts are compelled to treat patients because the analysts themselves are wounded. My friend Jo, who is also a psychologist, says that most of the people she studied with ended up in psychology for that very reason. According to some research by Alison Barr, “73.9% of counselors and psychotherapists have experienced one or more wounding experiences leading to their career choice.”
This is not unique to psychologists. Caregivers of all kinds (nurses, hospice workers, coaches, social workers, grief counselors, etc.) are often in the line of work they’re in because they first experienced their own wounds. (Of note: Henri Nouwen has written a book related to the topic, called Wounded Healer.)
“As soon as healing takes place, go out and heal somebody else.” – Maya Angelou
We are always given a choice what to do with our wounds. We can use them as an excuse to go out and wound other people (which is at the root of most of the pain in the world), or we can do the hard work of healing and then use that healing as a gift to help in other’s healing. The wounded healer emerges in all of us who make the right choice.
I first stepped into my coaching vocation in a hospital room.
I’d landed there in the middle of my third pregnancy after my cervix had suddenly become incompetent and medical intervention had failed to correct the situation. Truth be told, I wouldn’t have been in that situation if it hadn’t been for a series of doctors’ errors.
Lying on my back in a hospital room, fearing for my son’s life, I realized I had a choice to make. I could be bitter and resentful and blame the doctors for what had happened, or I could accept the situation and forgive the doctors. I chose the second.
Once I made that choice, I was at peace. Though it was stressful not knowing what would happen to the baby and not being in control of my own life while I waited, I was surprisingly calm. Since I could do nothing else, I began to turn my hospital room into a little spiritual retreat centre, with gentle music playing, cards and pictures from my kids on the wall, and fresh fruit and flowers on the windowsill.
People began to notice how peaceful my room was, and unexpected visitors started showing up. Other patients, cleaning staff, doctors, friends, and even other people’s visitors – all of them showed up there at one time or another and all remarked at the peacefulness of the room. Some of the nurses on the floor started dropping in during their breaks because my room was more relaxing than their coffee room. A cancer patient from across the hall became a regular visitor because her visits made her feel less anxious.
While they were there, people began to share things with me – personal things that they were working through in their own lives. There was the nurse who was struggling with parenting decisions, another nurse who’d moved from Africa and was finding it difficult to adjust to a new culture, the cancer patient who was afraid to die, and a friend who was trying to make a difficult decision about whether to step into leadership.
Without intending to, I became confidante and coach to those people. Long before I knew the term “holding space” I was doing it in that hospital room for anyone who needed it. I had plenty of time on my hands and I was willing to be of service and that willingness drew people to me. It was both humbling and eye-opening.
There I was, confined to my hospital room, serving as a wounded healer to friends and strangers alike. Because of my own fear, I could hold theirs without judgement. Because I’d walked through injustice and anger and came through to forgiveness, they saw something in me that they could trust. Because I made the effort to create a peaceful space in a tumultuous situation and environment, they sought me out as friend and healer.
That experience changed my life and led me to the work that I now do. None of it could have happened, though, if I hadn’t first been wounded. If that pregnancy had been easy and had resulted in a living child (instead of my stillborn son, Matthew), I might have carried on in my relatively successful corporate job. I might never have discovered my ability to hold space for other people and might never have contributed to the healing of their wounds.
The same can be said for that long ago rape. If I hadn’t been changed by that circumstance, healed the wound the rapist left me with, and come through determined not to perpetuate a cycle of oppression and wounding, I might never have stepped forward when Rosanna spoke of her desire to hold conversations about race relations.
Each of us has a choice – stay wounded and let the wounds fester, or seek healing and offer that healing to others.
“It is unwise to be too sure of one’s own wisdom. It is healthy to be reminded that the strongest might weaken and the wisest might err.” ― Mahatma Gandhi
“Sometimes helping is an act of violence.” That was one of many thought-provoking things Peter Block said in a talk I heard him give a few years ago.
Really?! Helping as an act of violence? How could that be possible?
The part of me that places a high value in my ability to help others didn’t want to believe it. Surely I hadn’t been conducting acts of violence in my efforts to help people. I’m a good person – how could I have inadvertently been guilty of violence?
But the more I’ve thought about it in the years since I heard it, the more I’ve realized that there is truth to it, and I have been guilty of it.
Sometimes helping is the wrong thing to do. Sometimes, despite our best intentions, helping is destructive rather than constructive.
I witnessed the truth of this when I used to travel in my non-profit work. In some of the poorest communities in the world, good-hearted foreigners have tried to help and have instead done damage. In Kenya, for example, I tried to find some colourful African fabric to bring home and discovered that the market for locally made fabric has been nearly wiped out by well-meaning people who have glutted the market with used clothing from North America and Europe. Thinking they were helping by sending their hand-me-downs, they have instead killed local businesses, put people out of work, and taken away the dignity of people who want to dress in their local attire rather than adopting Western wear.
The same can be said for churches and governments that thought they were serving First Nations children by giving them access to their version of a “good education”. Out of their good intentions, residential schools emerged. Children were ripped out of their homes and harshly disciplined while educators tried to “kill the Indian in the child”. Who can argue that their version of “helping” was the wrong thing to do?
Peter Block is right – sometimes helping is an act of violence. Sometimes it does more harm than good.
“But…” you might be thinking, “I’m not destroying anyone’s culture or violating their dignity. I’m just trying to help a friend who’s in trouble. What can be wrong with that? We all need help now and then.”
Yes, it’s true – we all need help sometimes, and often it’s absolutely the right thing to do. When my Dad was killed in a farm accident, for example, my whole family was grateful beyond words for all of the help we received. It didn’t take long for the neighbours to rally round us, bring us food, look after Dad’s animals, and care for our children. I am so grateful that those people didn’t stop to ask “how can we help” but instead found a gap and stepped in to fill it.
That’s what community does and it’s a beautiful thing to witness. I wish that we could all have access to that kind of support in our darkest times.
But… that kind of unconditional help in times of need doesn’t alter the truth that helping isn’t always the right thing to do.
Imagine you’re in a conversation with a friend and she tells you that her marriage is in trouble. Because you care for this friend and her partner, your immediate response is to try to help, so you interrupt her with what you think is a great solution. “All you need is some time alone with your partner. You should plan a surprise getaway this weekend. I’ll look after the kids and you can go away – just the two of you. It will all be fine by the time you get home on Sunday night. Trust me. I did it last year and we’re more in love than ever.”
How might your friend feel in that instance? She may not know how to articulate it to you, but she will probably feel diminished and even dismissed. Instead of taking the time to really witness her pain, you have brushed it aside as insignificant and easily fixed. She’ll probably assume that you’re better than she is at knowing how to make a marriage work, and so she will question herself and her choices. While you walk away feeling good about yourself because you’re able to help, there’s a very good chance she walks away feeling shame because she’s failing at her marriage and now feels judged by you.
In that instance, what your friend really needs is not your idea of a solution, but your willingness to listen without judgement. It’s possible that she’d also appreciate a childless weekend away, but that should only be offered AFTER there has been unconditional listening, and the offer should be extended as a gift of love rather than as your idea of a solution.
As good-hearted as it may have been, your idea of a solution may very well invalidate her struggle and diminish her sense of self-worth.
What can you do the next time you have the impulse to help and don’t know for sure if it’s the right thing to do? Here are some questions to ask yourself:
- Did I listen deeply FIRST and let my friend know that I am holding space for her without judgement?
- Does my offer to help come out of my own arrogance and assumption that I know better than the person I’m helping?
- Will my help in any way diminish the other person’s dignity, power, or self-worth?
- Is this the kind of help the other person wants or is it the kind of help I think that person needs?
- Do we have a reciprocal relationship and would I be willing to receive the same kind of help from this person?
- Am I offering help in humility or judgement/pity/condescension?
- Am I making this about me or do I have the best interests of the other person at heart?
- Is my advice or offer of help a defense against my own vulnerability? (From the work of Brene Brown)
- Am I willing to “look at suffering without turning away” (a quote from my friend Doug Koop, a hospital spiritual health specialist), or is my need to help a way of fixing so that I don’t need to feel uncomfortable?
- Am I expecting something in return, or is this an unconditional gift?
If you can answer these questions and know that your help is coming out of a place of humility and unconditional love, then there’s a very good chance it will be well received and will not be an act of violence. If, on the other hand, it creates a power imbalance between you and the person receiving the help, then it may not be the right thing to do.
This is far from an exact science, and each situation will have to be evaluated independently, based on your relationship with that person and your own motives for helping. Sometimes, when there is a crisis, for example, and the person is overwhelmed or incapacitated, you’ll need to make choices that will feel like violation but are still the right thing to do.
We won’t get it right every time. Sometimes we’ll offend people and sometimes our fear of offending will mean that we’ll withhold the kind of help that is really needed and wanted. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t show up and keep trying.
When we are genuine in our humility and authentic in our love, we’ll get it right more often than not.