My baby died before I got to hold him in my arms. I’d been in the hospital for three weeks, trying to save my third pregnancy, but then one morning I went downstairs for my twice-daily ultrasound and found out he had died while I slept. Then came the horrible and unavoidable realization… I had to give birth to him. For three hours I laboured, knowing that at the end of it, instead of a baby suckling at my breast, I would hold death in my arms. That’s the hardest kind of liminal space I’ve ever been through – excruciating pain on top of excruciating grief.
Yes, it was hard, but it was also one of the most tender, beautiful, grace-filled experiences of my life. It changed me profoundly, and set me on the path I am on now. That was the beginning of my journey to understanding the painful beauty of grief, the value of the liminal space, and the essence of what it means to hold space for another person.
When Matthew was born, the nurses in the hospital handled it beautifully. They dressed him in tiny blue overalls and wrapped him in a yellow blanket, lovingly hand-made by volunteers. They took photos of him for us to take home, made prints of his hands and feet for a special birth/death certificate, and then brought him to my room so that we could spend the evening with him. I asked one of the nurses later how they’d known just the right things to do, and she told me that they used to be frustrated because they didn’t know how to support grieving parents, but then had all been sent to a workshop that gave them some tools that changed the experience for the parents and for them.
That evening, our family and close friends gathered in my hospital room to support us and to hold the baby that they had been waiting to welcome.
Now, nearly sixteen years later, I don’t remember a single thing that was said in that hospital room, but I remember one thing. I remember the presence of the people who mattered. I remember that they came, I remember that they gazed lovingly into the face of my tiny baby, and I remember that they cried with me. I have a mental picture in my mind of the way they loved – not just me, but my lifeless son. That love and that presence was everything. I’m sure it was hard for some of them to come, knowing what they were facing, but they came because it mattered.
This past week, I’ve been in a couple of conversations with people who were concerned that they might do or say the wrong thing in response to someone’s hard story. “What if I offend them? What if they think I’m trying to fix them? What if they think I’m insensitive? What if I’m guilty of emotional colonization?” Some of these people admitted that they sometimes avoid showing up for people in grief or struggle because they simply don’t have a clue how to support them.
There are lots of “wrong” things to do in the face of grief – fixing, judging, projecting, or deflecting. Holding someone else’s pain is not easy work.
In her raw and beautiful new book, Love Warrior, Glennon Melton Doyle talks about how hard it was to share the story of her husband’s infidelity and their resulting marriage breakdown. There are six kinds of people who responded.
- The Shover is the one who “listens with nervousness and then hurriedly explains that ‘everything happens for a reason,’ or ‘it’s darkest before the dawn,’ or ‘God has a plan for you.’”
- The Comparer is the person “nods while ‘listening’, as if my pain confirms something she already knows. When I finish she clucks her tongue, shakes her head, and respond with her own story.”
- The Fixer “is certain that my situation is a question and she knows the answer. All I need is her resources and wisdom and I’ll be able to fix everything.”
- The Reporter “seems far too curious about the details of the shattering… She is not receiving my story, she is collecting it. I learn later that she passes on the breaking news almost immediately, usually with a worry or prayer disclaimer.”
- The Victims are the people who “write to say they’ve hear my news secondhand and they are hurt I haven’t told them personally. They thought we were closer than that.
- And finally, there are “the God Reps. They believe they know what God wants for me and they ‘feel led’ by God to ‘share.’”
These are all people who may mean well, but are afraid to hold space. They are afraid to be in a position where they might not know the answer and will have to be uncomfortable for awhile. Wrapped up in their response is not their concern for the other person but their concern for their own ego, their own comfort, and their own pride.
It’s easy to look at a list like that and think “Well, no matter what I do, I’ll probably do the wrong thing so I might as well not try.” But that’s a cop-out. If the person living through the hard story is worth anything to you, then you have to at least show up and try.
From my many experiences being the recipient of support when I walked through hard stories, this is my simple suggestion for what to do:
Be fully present.
Don’t worry so much about what you’ll say. Yes, you might say the wrong thing, but if the friendship is solid enough, the person will forgive you for your blunder. If you don’t even show up, on the other hand, that forgiveness will be harder to come by.
So show up. Be there in whatever way you can and in whatever way the relationship merits – a phone call, a visit, a text message.
Just be there, even if you falter, stumble, or make mistakes. And when you’re there, be FULLY present. Pay attention to what the person is sharing with you and what they may be asking of you. Don’t just listen well enough so that you can formulate your response, listen well enough that you risk being altered by the story. Dare to enter into the grit of the story with them. Ask the kind of questions that show interest and compassion rather than judgement or a desire to fix. Risk making yourself uncomfortable. Take a chance that the story will take you so far out of your comfort zone that you won’t have a clue how to respond.
And when you are fully present, your intuition will begin to whisper in your ear about the right things to do or say. You’ll hear the longing in your friend’s voice, for example, and you’ll find a way to show up for that longing. In the nuances of their story, and in the whisperings they’ll be able to utter because they see in you someone they can trust, you’ll recognize the little gifts that they’ll be able to receive.
It is only when you dare to be uncomfortable that you can hold liminal space for another person.
This is not easy work and it’s not simple. It’s gritty and a little dangerous. It asks a lot of us and it takes us into hard places. But it’s worth it and it’s really, really important.
There’s a term for the kind of thing that people do when they’re trying to fix you, rush you to a resolution, or pressure you to have positive thoughts rather than fully experiencing the grief. It’s called “spiritual bypassing”, a term coined by John Welwood. “I noticed a widespread tendency to use spiritual ideas and practices to sidestep or avoid facing unresolved emotional issues, psychological wounds, and unfinished developmental tasks,” he says. “When we are spiritually bypassing, we often use the goal of awakening or liberation to rationalize what I call premature transcendence: trying to rise above the raw and messy side of our humanness before we have fully faced and made peace with it. And then we tend to use absolute truth to disparage or dismiss relative human needs, feelings, psychological problems, relational difficulties, and developmental deficits. I see this as an “occupational hazard” of the spiritual path, in that spirituality does involve a vision of going beyond our current karmic situation.”
When we’re too uncomfortable to hold space for another person’s pain, we push them into this kind of spiritual bypassing, not because we believe it’s best for them, but because anything else is too uncomfortable for us. But spiritual bypassing only stuffs the wound further down so that it pops up later in addiction, rage, unhealthy behaviour, and physical or mental illness.
Instead of pushing people to bypass the pain, we have to slow down, dare to be uncomfortable, and allow the person to find their own path through.
There’s a good chance that the person doesn’t want your perfect response – they want your PRESENCE. They want to know that they are supported. They want a container in which they can safely break apart. They want to know you won’t abandon them. They want to know that you will listen. They want to know that they are worth enough to you that you’ll give up your own comfort to be in the trenches with them.
Your faltering attempts at being present are better than your perfect absence.
My memory of that evening in the hospital room with my son Matthew is full of redemption and beauty and grace because it was full of people who love me. None of them knew the right things to say in the face of my pain, but they were there. They listened to me share my birthing story, even though there was no resolution, and they looked into the face of my son even though they couldn’t fix him.
Nothing was more important to me than that.
A note about what’s coming…
A new online writing course… If you want to write to heal, to grow, or to change the world, consider joining me for Open Heart, Moving Pen, October 1-21, 2016.
An emerging coaching/facilitation program… As I’ve mentioned before, I’m currently writing a book about what it means to hold space. While writing the first three chapters, I began to dream about what else might grow out of this work and I came up with a beautiful idea that I’m very excited about. I’ll be creating a “liminal space coaching/facilitation program” that will provide training for anyone who wants to deepen their work in holding liminal space. When I started dreaming of this, I realized that I’ve been creating the tools for such a program for several years now – Mandala Discovery, The Spiral Path, Pathfinder, 50 Questions, and Openhearted Writing. Participants of the coaching/facilitation program (which will begin in early 2017) will have access to all of these tools to use in their own work, whether that’s as coaches, facilitators, pastors, spiritual directors, hospice workers, or teachers.
If the coaching/facilitation program interests you, you might want to get a head start in working through one or more of those programs so that you’ve done some of the foundational work first. The more personal work you’ve done in holding space for yourself first, the more effective you’ll be in the work. (Participants in any of those courses will be given a discount on the registration cost of the coaching/facilitation program.)
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“But it hurts if I open it too much.”
That’s what I hear, in some form or another, every time I teach my Openhearted Writing Circle or host openhearted sharing circles.
People show up in those places hopeful and longing for openness, yet wounded and weary and unsure they have what it takes to follow through. They want to pour their hearts onto the page, to share their stories with openness and not fear, to live vulnerably and not guarded, and yet… they’re afraid. They’re afraid to be judged, to be shamed, to be told they’re not worthy, to be told they’re too big for their britches. They’ve been hurt before and they’re not sure they can face it again.
And every time, I tell them some variation of the following…
An open heart is not an unprotected heart.
You have a right, and even a responsibility, to protect yourself from being wounded. You have a right to heal your own wounds before you share them with anyone. You have a right to guard yourself from people who don’t have your best interests at heart. You have a right to keep what’s tender close to your heart.
Only you can choose how exposed you want to make your tender, open heart. Just because other people are doing it, doesn’t mean it’s the right thing for you.
Yes, I advocate openhearted living, because I believe that when we let ourselves be cracked open – when we risk being wounded – our lives will be bigger and more beautiful than when we remain forever guarded. As Brene Brown says, our vulnerability creates resilience.
HOWEVER, that doesn’t mean that we throw caution to the wind and expose ourselves unnecessarily to wounding.
Our open hearts need protection.
Our vulnerability needs to be paired with intentionality.
We, and we alone, can decide who is worthy of our vulnerability.
We choose to live with an open heart only in those relationships that help us keep our hearts open. Some people – coming from a place of their own fear, weakness, jealousy, insecurity, projection, woundedness, etc. – cannot handle our vulnerability and so they will take it upon themselves to close our hearts or wound them or hide from them. They are not the right people. They are the people we choose to protect ourselves from.
Each of us needs to choose our own circles of trust. Here’s what that looks like:
In the inner circle, closest to our tender hearts, are those people who are worthy of high intimacy and trust. These are the select few – those who have proven themselves to be supportive enough, emotionally mature enough, and strong enough to hold our most intimate secrets. They do not back down from woundedness. They do not judge us or try to fix us. They understand what it means to hold space for us.
In the second circle, a little further from our tender hearts, are those people who are only worthy of moderate intimacy and trust. These are the people who are important to us, but who haven’t fully proven themselves worthy of our deepest vulnerability. Sometimes these are our family members – we love them and want to share our lives with them, but they may be afraid of how we’re changing or how we’ve been wounded and so they try to fix us or they judge us. We trust them with some things, but not that which is most tender.
In the third circle are those who have earned only low levels of intimacy and trust. These are our acquaintances, the people we work with or rub shoulders with regularly and who we have reasonably good relationships with, but who haven’t earned a place closer to our hearts. We can choose to be friendly with these people, but we don’t let them into the inner circles.
On the outside are those people who have earned no intimacy or trust. They may be there because we just don’t know them yet, or they may be there because we don’t feel safe with them. These are the people we protect ourselves from, particularly when we’re feeling raw and wounded.
People can move in and out of these circles of trust, but it is US and ONLY us who can choose where they belong. WE decide what boundaries to erect and who to protect ourselves from. WE decide when to allow them a little closer in or when to move them further out.
How do we make these decisions? We learn to trust our own intuition. If someone doesn’t feel safe, we ask ourselves why and we trust that gut feeling. Sometimes we’ll get it wrong, and sometimes people will let us down, but with time and experience, we get better at discerning who is safe and who is not.
We also have to decide what to share in each level of the circle, but that’s a longer discussion for another blog post. For now I’ll simply say…
Trust your intuition. Don’t share what is vulnerable in a situation that feels unsafe. Erect the boundaries you need to erect to keep your tender heart safe. Let people in who have your best interest at heart.
This article has been voluntarily translated into Farsi.
If you want to explore your own open heart, you’re welcome to join an Openhearted Writing Circle, or consider booking a coaching session. For a self-guided journey to your own heart, consider The Spiral Path, which remains open until the end of February.
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When you stand at the very centre of the Carol Shield’s labyrinth, as I did yesterday evening, and speak out to the edges, you will hear your own voice echoed ever so slightly back to you. You have to listen very carefully to hear it and you have to be standing in exactly the right spot or the echo evades you.
In labyrinthian journeys, the centre is known as the place where you open yourself to receiving from Spirit, after walking in and releasing what was previously getting in the way.
Which begs the question… what am I meant to receive from the echo of my own voice? What wisdom is already hidden in me that I might not yet be aware of?
Yesterday in church the pastor spoke about giftedness – how we need only be faithful with our gifts in order for them to multiply. At the centre of the labyrinth, I thought about that in relation to my voice. It’s a gift that already exists, coming out of a wisdom that God has already planted within me, and I don’t need to keep looking elsewhere for my source of inspiration.
Faithfulness to our gifts means that we must exercise them, train them, and grow them. Practice and study are both very important, but what’s also important is a deep level of trust in the gift itself.
In our eagerness to perfect the gift, and our insecurity about using it before it is sufficiently polished, we forget about the ancient wisdom already there. We forget that the unpolished gift already has beauty.
When I was a child, I had a growing realization that I had a unique ability to see things – to really see them in a deeper way than most people did. When I would try to explain things that I’d seen to other people, I knew by their lack of understanding that they’d never witnessed them in the same way that I did.
These were fairly ordinary things, but for me they had an aura of magic. For example, I was always captivated by the image of deer leaping over fences. That sight would freeze me in my tracks and I was stand in awe at the magic I had just witnessed. When I would try to explain how that sight impacted me, people would usually look at me with a puzzled look and I knew that they’d only ever seen deer leaping over fences as ordinary and not transcendent.
I stopped talking about things that seemed mystical to me. It made me feel too much like an oddball. Now, years later, I recognize that ability to see things as a part of the ancient wisdom buried in me. I am a meaning-maker, a storycatcher, a seer… perhaps even a mystic. I see metaphor and meaning in things that pass many people by. I receive messages from deer or trees or sunsets and I walk away changed. It’s still not always easy to talk about (as I mentioned in my last post), but I am growing in my ability to trust it.
In The Naked Now: Learning to See as the Mystics See, Richard Rohr talks about the three ways to see a sunset…
One man saw the immense physical beauty and enjoyed the event in itself. This man was the “sensate” type who, like 80 percent of the world, deals with what he can see, feel, touch, move, and fix. This was enough reality for him, for he had little interest in larger ideas, intuitions, or the grand scheme of things. He saw with his first eye, which was good.
A second man saw the sunset. He enjoyed all the beauty that the first man did. Like all lovers of coherent thought, technology, and science, he also enjoyed his power to make sense of the universe and explain what he discovered. He thought about the cyclical rotations of planets and stars. Through imagination, intuition, and reason, he saw with his second eye, which was even better.
The third man saw the sunset, knowing and enjoying all that the first and the second men did. But in his ability to progress from seeing to explaining to “tasting,” he also remained in awe before an underlying mystery, coherence, and spaciousness that connected him with everything else. He used his third eye, which is the full goal of all seeing and all knowing. This was the best.
The third man, who sees with his third eye, is a mystic. As soon as I read Rohr’s description of what it means to be a mystic, I knew that this had something to do with the way that I’d always seen the world. The seeds of mysticism were already there when I stood in awe of deer leaping over fences.
I have read a thousand books, taken a thousand classes, and yet none of them can teach me to access the ancient wisdom – the wisdom of the seer – that is already within me. None of them can point to the gift that is meant for me to share. For that I must quiet all of the external voices, remove myself from the noise of my life and walk a labyrinth or wander the woods. That is when my own voice is echoed back at me and I know that I already have what I need.
What is the ancient wisdom buried in you? It may be body wisdom, heart wisdom, or head wisdom. It may be the ability to see justice, create order, experience beauty, shape stories, make people laugh, or offer compassion. What did you already know as a child, but might have been afraid to speak of or do or be because it made you seem like an oddball? What do you now need to do to create space for that wisdom to emerge?
To start with, find a quiet place where your wisdom can echo back to you through the silence. Walk away from the noise of other people’s voices and expectations and stand in silence with your God. In that quiet place, let your gift emerge from its hiding place, let it fill your heart with knowing, and give yourself permission to trust it. Then, by all means, practice, train, and polish it, but don’t forget to use it in the meantime. It already has value.
The gift is yours – be faithful in using it and it will multiply.
1. Life is messy. We can’t clean it up with “easy steps”.
2. There are no simple roadmaps to success. Come to think of it, “success” might not be what we’re after.
3. Your path will always look different from mine. You may have six steps, while I have seventeen. And in the end, we’ll arrive at different places anyway, so what’s the point in counting steps?
4. Sometimes, the destination changes on the way there.
5. The joy of living is in the journey. “Ten easy steps” implies that it’s all about the destination.
6. If they’re so darn easy, does that mean I’m a failure if I just can’t get them right?
7. I’m ornery. I don’t like following rules.
8. I’m also a wanderer. I generally find a way to deviate from the path – throw in an extra step or two, just for variation.
9. When I read “ten easy steps” in the headline, I generally think “writer/blogger trying to take the short route to easy money”.
10. I prefer circles and swirls (just look at my header, for example) to straight lines. Perhaps I’ll write “a circular guide to success”. Hmmm…
11. (You KNEW I was too ornery to leave this at 10, didn’t you?) “Ten easy steps” leaves out the power of intuition, the beauty of being led by Spirit, and the joy of discovery along the way.
Surely you desire truth in the inner parts; you teach me wisdom in the inmost place. – Psalm 51:6
I wish I could tell you that I am always, 100% sure that this new path I’m traveling on – the path that lead me to Sophia Leadership – is the right path and I am meant to be doing this work and everything is going to be alright.
It’s just not the case. There are days when the internal critics are throwing parties in my head. Days when I think I would be better off getting a “real” job. Days when I try to convince myself that I should just focus on promoting the skills I’ve proven in the workplace (communications) and make a living off that. Days when I think this stuff is just a little too “out there” and nobody’s going to get it (or at least not anyone who’s going to pay the bills).
I’m trying to be kind to those critics, give them an opportunity to speak what they feel they must, and then gently but firmly insist that they take up residence in some place other than my brain. Here’s a few of the conversations I’ve been having lately.
Internal critic #1: “You shouldn’t be doing this. People who know you are going to think you’ve gone off the deep end, rejected your Christianity and taken a dive into some woo-woo cult of the feminine divine. You don’t want to embarrass yourself that way, do you? Why not just stick to comfortable old paradigms that don’t make you look too wacko?”
Me: “Dear critic, I know you mean well and you just want to help me save face. Thanks for caring. But the truth is that the old paradigms just never fit very well, and I can’t live authentically if I don’t question them. No, I haven’t rejected Christianity – just take a closer look in the Bible and you’ll find Sophia all over the book of Proverbs (she’s been ignored by the church for way too long). What I HAVE rejected is the version of Christianity that just sees one narrow door to an exclusive, close-minded male God. Please pack your baggage and leave, because no matter how hard you try, I’m not going back to that set of beliefs.”
Internal critic #2: “What you’re doing just isn’t going to make sense to people. Think about the times you’ve tried to explain it to people, and they just kind of looked at you funny and said (with a look that clearly expressed their concern that you’ve gone off your rocker), ‘That’s nice. But HOW are you going to make a living with this?’ If those people don’t get it, NOBODY’S going to get it!”
Me: “Friendly critic, I appreciate what you’re saying and I believe there may be some wisdom in it. Perhaps I need to think about better ways to explain it to people who haven’t immersed themselves in these ideas like I have recently. BUT that doesn’t mean I’m going to give up, because there are LOTS of people who are getting it – LOTS of people who are sending me such lovely notes about how this has touched a deep longing in their hearts. Even if those people end up being in the minority, they make it worth the effort. I’ll keep doing this for them.”
Internal critic #3: “Look at the success you’re having teaching the PR course. That’s the stuff you actually know – writing press releases and stories, and planning PR events, etc., etc. You really should stick to that, because you actually have enough experience in that to call yourself an ‘expert’. (What about that “communicator of the year” award last year? Huh? Have you forgotten about THAT?!) What right do you have to pretend you know anything about feminine wisdom? You probably need a degree or something like that.”
Me: “Oh critic, you’re right – I’m far from an expert. But don’t you understand that when I read, write, learn, talk, and teach about this stuff, my heart comes ALIVE in a way that it never does when I’m writing a press release? Don’t you see that this is a deep calling that won’t let me rest until I follow it further into the wilderness of my heart?”
The truth is, wisdom (God’s wisdom – “Sophia”) comes through many sources. Sometimes the critics – whether they are internal or external – are worth heeding because of how they can help us avoid pitfalls or enhance our newly-birthed ideas.
But far, FAR too many times, we give the critics too much power by allowing them to silence the wisdom that is whispered to us in quieter, less obvious ways.
It’s the wisdom that shows up in our hearts when we are quiet enough to pay attention.
The wisdom that comes when we sit on our meditation cushions and open ourselves up to Sophia/God.
The wisdom that appears when we sit and stare at an oak tree or a blade of grass.
The wisdom that emerges from our bodies when we run, do yoga, dance, walk, stretch, or just sit and pay attention.
The wisdom that we find when we look deep into the eyes of a horse.
It’s that kind of wisdom that I’m trying to listen to these days. It (rather than the self-limiting beliefs of my internal critics) will help me shape whatever Sophia Leadership is meant to be.
I know this – Sophia has shown me so many incredible signs in the last year that this is the path that I’m meant to journey on. One of those signs came yesterday when I met someone who’s been on a remarkably similar journey in the last year and who lives only half an hour from my house. Though we hadn’t met before, we have been living nearly parallel lives (including having worked in the exact same job a few years apart!), and it is so very clear that we were meant to meet now (and not all those other times we could have met when we crossed paths) and meant to further this work together, that neither of us can ignore the signs. (More on that incredible synchronicity in posts to come.)
Each and every day, we have to choose which wisdom we’re going to trust. Trusting the more intuitive, spiritual, “God-breathed” wisdom often feels like “the road less traveled”, but it is that wisdom that will help us change the world. The beautiful thing is, this quiet wisdom actually come from a Source that is much bigger than any of our critics.