Navigating the Holidays After Major Loss

 

So many people I know (myself included) have experienced major losses over the past year that I’ve been thinking about it a lot as we enter this winter holiday season.

The winter holidays can be stressful under any circumstances, whether we experience their stressors as welcome or unwelcome. There are gifts to purchase, expectations (real or imagined) of others to face, invitations to events that we may welcome or dread (or both!), winter travel to navigate, crowds in town, strains on finances, the presence of friends or family members we may not like that much, or the absence of those we do…and on and on.  And for those who have experienced loss, the usual seasonal stresses may be significantly  amplified.

RjwL9926881
http://www.chabad.org, photo by Flash90

The loss of a loved one through death, divorce or estrangement brings with it an array of related losses during the holidays, some of which can be anticipated and prepared for, and many of which can’t. Maybe your wife always put the lights on the tree, or your daughter and son-in-law brought the grandchildren to visit, or dad gave a dramatic reading of  “T’was the Night Before Christmas”. While you or someone else could decorate the tree, put the lights up, recite a poem, or fill the empty chair at the table, especially in the first year after a loss it may feel much too soon to “fill the hole” by taking over (or asking someone else to take over) the absent person’s role: after all, the loved one’s absence is their presence in the early stages (and by “early,” I mean at least the first 2 years) of mourning. And there are so many individual, little decisions to make. Do you send a holiday card this year, or not? If so, what’s the message? And what about that traditional family picture greeting card, after a child has died? Then there are the unanticipated emotional “stings”: the sight in the closet of that holiday sweater he always wore. Or you’ve decided to send a card, but then oops, that’s right: it will only be you signing it this year, not the two of you. Or those toys the grandkids loved to play with that will stay on the shelf this year.

1599px-Christmas_Lights_Bokeh_Effect_(Unsplash)
Christmas lights, Bokeh effect

For these reasons, even those of us who have been coping okay with a given loss can find that the holiday season “pushes the refresh button” on our grief, as we encounter the specific losses associated with the holiday season— losses that can’t be grieved until they come along.

What to do? Anyone who knows me very well has probably heard me say this a bazillion times, but it bears repeating: Grieving itself is the way through grief. Feeling, acknowledging and getting through are all that is really called for…and that is plenty.

That said, here are some specific things that can help ease holiday stress, during early grief.

1.  Don’t avoid the holidays. They’ll come anyway, and avoiding them now will mean dreading them again next year. Feel your feelings, and prepare as best you can for the hardest days.

2.  Make plans with others tentative.  Because the emotions of grief are so unpredictable, it’s hard to know how you’ll be feeling when the time comes for a given event. When accepting invitations, let others know that you may change your mind, and why…and then do what feels right when the time comes.

3.  Do only what has meaning for you. Think about what supports you and makes you feel most comfortable, and do only those things. If you are reluctant to disappoint others, remember that taking care of your own needs when you are grieving will make you more available to others again in the long run.

4.  Consider shopping early or online. As Julie Siri of Journey Through Loss puts it, grieving people often see reality through distorted lenses.  If you have lost a spouse, it may appear that all the world is “coupled”  with happy , healthy, married people […] If you have lost a child, everywhere you gaze you will see only energetic, rosy-cheeked children with smiling parents.   During the holidays these perceptions can be accentuated:  the malls are filled with joyful shoppers, Holiday music, colorful decorations, and an exciting hustle and bustle in the air. A grieving person may feel alone and depressed in this environment.

5.  Let others know what they can do. people who care about you can’t  know how to support you unless you tell them how you feel and what you need, as there is no formula or single “right way” to support a grieving person. Saying honestly that “Today is a hard day for me, and I’d appreciate some company” (or “…and I feel like being quietly alone”) lets people know what would be (and not be) supportive at a given time.

6.  Choose who to be around…and not. Spend time people who can be okay with tears, and who won’t tell you how you should and shouldn’t feel!

7.  Remember that our important relationships don’t end, they change. For many people, spending time with people who had a relationship also with the person who left or died— people you can reminisce with— is an important part of making that transition from how you were with the loved one then, to how you are with them now. Julie Siri again:  You are still impacted by your loved ones’ love, guided by their words, touched by their sense of humor.  Acknowledge the person who died, write them a card, get them a gift.  Honor this relationship in whatever manner you find helpful. Reminiscing with others about a person who died is an important way that we develop and nurture the new way (through our memories) of continuing to be in relationship with the people we love.

8. Connect with the larger community of grievers as an additional way to share experience and support during this time. Local hospice programs always have special holiday programs and holiday-focused information and resources to share, and there are a lot of good online sites that provide information and connections with other grievers. http://www.journeythroughloss.com, and www.griefshare.org are two of many.20161204_180331

In the end, there’s “no way out but through” the special emotional challenges that the holidays bring to the ongoing process of grieving, and no right way to navigate them, nor formula for easing the pain. But acknowledging, accepting (and for some of us, talking about) our feelings and experiences, without judging ourselves for what we feel (or for what we don’t feel, like “cheery”!) during the holiday season can go a long way toward relieving the additional pain that comes from thinking that “However I am I should be some different way.” However we are is exactly how we “should be,” as grieving itself navigates our course through it.

 

 

Advertisements

“The Journey”

In a post in 2015, on the topic of  “Books that have changed our lives,” several contributors wrote about the way in which their lives had been changed the most by books whose central message is that we each can and must take responsibility for our own heath and happiness. For women, especially, socialized to respond to others’ needs and demands first (and to think that putting ourselves first is “selfish”), this can be not only news, but a major change in our whole orientation.

Far from being “selfish,” taking responsibility for meeting our own needs (whatever that means to us each, but maybe especially for rest and for nurture) actually does take care of others, even as we are taking care of ourselves. How? First of all, it removes the burden of responsibility  —whether intentional or unintentional— from those we love, for doing something no-one else can do for us anyway (no-one else can receive what we need for us). Secondly (but related), it relieves us of the inevitable resentment we feel when others don’t deliver to us what they can’t give us anyway: our own self-care!

A realization of my own around this came when a wise health practitioner asked me once, “Who is the most important person in your life to take care of?” When I answered “my husband,” she replied “Wrong answer!” Then sh

 

e asked me, “What would he want your answer to that question to be?” It was a startling question to be asked…and yet I immediately knew the answer: “Me!” Which was the answer I would also want him to give if he were asked the same question: that he, and not I, was his “number one” care-giving priority. After all, if he didn’t take care of himself, how would he be able to take are of me?IMG_2255

Consider the instructions that flight attendants give on what to do in an emergency, which include the instruction to “put the oxygen mask over your own face first,” and only then over a child’s or companion’s face. Which makes immediate sense, right? It’s obvious in a situation like that that unless we first make sure that we ourselves are getting the oxygen we need, we are not even going to be around long enough to take care of others’ needs.

That said, as usual poetry goes to the heart of the matter as only poetry can; in this case, the poem “The Journey” by beloved American poet Mary Oliver. It’s a poem that I have found powerfully challenging and orienting, both, at times in my life (and there have been many!) when taking responsibility for listening and responding to what life and love were calling me both toward and away from was especially urgent for my own physical, mental and spiritual health.

If you, too, recognize yourself in this poem, may you know what you have to do, and begin.

 

The Journey

One day you finally knew
what you had to do, and began,
though the voices around you
kept shouting
their bad advice–
though the whole house
began to tremble
and you felt the old tug
at your ankles.
“Mend my life!”
each voice cried.
But you didn’t stop.
You knew what you had to do,
though the wind pried
with its stiff fingers
at the very foundations,
though their melancholy
was terrible.
I
t was already late
enough, and a wild night,
and the road full of fallen
branches and stones.
But little by little,
as you left their voices behind,
IMG_2254
the stars began to burn
through the sheets of clouds,
and there was a new voice
which you slowly
recognized as your own,
that kept you company
as you strode deeper and deeper
into the world,
determined to do
the only thing you could do–
determined to save
the only life you could save.

(from Dreamwork, by Mary Oliver, 1986)

Crazy

“How’s business?” someone asked me at a party recently.

I responded with my standard (and true) answer: that I’m happy in my work, and happy that I get to do it. Then came the joking next question, “So I guess there must be at least as many crazy people around these parts as there are in the city?”

It was a version of the reference to “crazy people” in connection with the work I do that I have heard more times than I can count, and yet it takes me off guard every time, since “crazy” is not a way I think of anyone I see or have seen in my therapy practice. It’s as if someone were to ask me, “Are there as many two-headed green space aliens around these parts as there are in the city?” To which my answer would be easy: “I wouldn’t know— I’ve never seen any.” 

pCth7skgf1-10
drawing by “Turnabliss” @ drawception.com

The fact is, the term “crazy” says more about the fear and judgement of those who use it than it says about anyone it is used to describe. Think about it: when you have described yourself or someone else as being “crazy,” haven’t you used it as a term of scorn, a shorthand way to judge, write off, and distance yourself from someone you see as not being able to cope as you think they should, or whose behaviors annoy you, or who seems eccentric in a way you fear?

Which is not to say that there are not people who don’t suffer terribly and persistently from disabling, disorienting, mental or emotional conditions (conditions which are usually treated with medication and case-management anyway, and not counseling). But to call people with severe and persistent mental illness “crazy” is to replace our compassion and curiosity with an all-purpose, scornful write-off label that only contributes to the stigma and isolation that they live with everyday, adding insult to injury, very literally.

Far from being either “crazy” (whatever that means) or being two-headed green space aliens, the people who go to therapy are just like you and me: humans grappling with the ordinary and sometimes extraordinary challenges of being human. Some are dealing with mental illness, which (like any other illness) takes a lot of energy and patience and skill to cope with on a daily basis. Some, faced with a difficult decision, life transition, or loss to navigate, use counseling to create a space in which to hear themselves think and feel themselves feel, the better to figure out for themselves what to do. And the purpose of counseling is to hold that space– a space for people to have a conversation with their own wisdom and emotions, not to get advice, have their problems solved by someone else, or be told how they “should” feel (our friends and families are happy to do that for free, right?)

Over the past several decades of my own adult life, I have personally seen a therapist on 4 different occasions at least, and each therapist I consulted was invaluable in helping me identify and effectively navigate the particular challenges I was working with at the time. One helped me see the need to develop more self-compassion, and taught me practices to cultivate it which I use and teach to this day. One helped my husband and me endure the challenges of parenting teens more effectively (and I hope more gracefully). Another offered me the kinds of questions to ask myself that made it possible for me to more clearly evaluate and take action on a difficult workplace situation. And one offered simply the anchor of her calm, reassuring, confident, listening presence that I needed to get myself through a scary episode of depression, until it lifted.

Could I cope with these myself without counseling? Of course— I was coping, just like everyone alive is coping: coping is what keeps us alive. The problem for most of us isn’t located in a failure of “coping,” it’s that “coping” alone reduces our experience of living to strategies focused on avoiding pain, at the expense of feeling fully and exuberantly alive. So when people come to therapy, it’s rarely about not being able to cope; it’s about being tired of paying the price of “just coping,” and wanting to also feel more fully (and joyously) alive.

Which makes me think, as I write this, that maybe that is actually a good definition of “crazy:” “being fully alive.” If that makes me crazy, I’ll take it. I’d be crazy not to.

images

Making a Habit of Happiness

In my previous post (“On Happiness” Part 1), I described how I got over my…well, my unhappiness about happiness.

Since then, I’ve been enthusiastically reading up on what’s understood about how it works, and on how to cultivate and incorporate happiness as a stronger strand of experience in our lives. 

There’s been a lot of attention in research and in therapy in the past few years to the principles and approaches of  “positive psychology,” which field has to do with the ways that we can deliberately influence our experience of overall happiness. Some research has concluded that we each, individually, have a “happiness set-point” that largely determines our overall sense of well-being. Experiences that feel positive can temporarily raise our mood levels, and losses or disappointments can lower them, but generally our moods tend to cluster around this set point, and to return to it— it’s kind of like our personal “mood climate.”

While it’s thought that these basic mood level “set points” are partly determined by our genes and our upbringing, it turns out that about 40 percent of our personal happiness-climate is within our control, and can be changed by making conscious choices to behave in ways that increase positive feelings. Simply by taking our thinking (and other behavioral) habits off “automatic” and putting them on “manual,”  we can add much more happiness to our lives than may have seemed possible before.

A keyword here is the word “add:” happiness is not made by covering over our sorrow and suffering with a smiley-face sticker; it’s about expanding the scope of our experience to include happiness as part of it. About choosing to invite happiness to live and to grow side-by-side with our other moods and experiences. In fact, our ability to successfully navigate life’s disappointments and losses (and even to cope with depression), is in great part dependent on our ability to look for, receive, cultivate and savor positive feelings and experiences also.

I find one of the most beautiful, living testimonials to the power of personal choice in the cultivation of happiness in my friend and mentor, Colleen B, with whom I spent a weekend recently at her home on Vashon Island. imagesNow in her eighties, Colleen has lived a rich and loving family life with her husband and 5 children, and now also many grandchildren. She is one of the most deeply, even radiantly positive people I know, which radiance seems to only brighten –and her vitality deepen– as she ages. So much so that if you did not know her history, you might assume that she must have lived a charmed life, relatively untouched by loss.

In fact, the opposite is true: between 2004 and 2015, both of Colleen’s sons, her husband, and a daughter died, with the three most recent of those deaths coming only 2-1/2 years apart. It goes without saying that each one of these losses has been profound. Collectively, they are hard for me to imagine even living through.

But as I have watched and listened to Colleen speak about what it has been like to accept and digest these losses over time, I have seen in action the ways in which her dedication to, and faith in, all that is life-giving (which is perhaps, in essence, what happiness is made of)  has made it possible for her to incorporate these losses into the whole of the experience of continuing to fully live, instead of either repressing grief by pasting a false smile over it, walling it off in some other way, or giving in to despair. Rather, happiness for Colleen is what makes the sadness bearable; the warp on which the weft of sadness is woven in the fabric of her life.  Or as Colleen put it (in our text exchange just now about what I was planning to write about her here):  “It is important to say that I experience feeling sad and happy at the same time. It took me awhile to recognize that in myself: that one does not cancel out the other.” 

*

So how does one cultivate happiness, so that it’s there when we need it (and don’t we need it every day)?

The thing is,  it does take intention and effort to keep happiness strong and alivesimply because the positive does not shout for our attention in the way that fear and disappointment do. As organisms, our brains are wired for fear to have the first and loudest voice…which wiring helps us survive, but it’s not what helps us thrive.

Here are 5 practices that can help to cultivate happiness (all of which, as it turns out, Colleen herself does on a daily basis).

Keep a gratitude journal. Each night before going to bed, write down three new things for which you are grateful. It’s important to write these down, not just review them in your mind: new habits of mind tend to take root more easily when the body and is involved. Doing this every day for 3 weeks will make it a habit, meaning your brain will start automatically looking for more things to appreciate.

Regularly notice and savor the positive. Maybe your practice will be to jot down at least one positive experience you’ve had in the last 24 hours, and take the time to really appreciate it. Maybe it will mean really savoring the taste of a sandwich while eating it, instead of reviewing and savoring a grudge during lunch.  As with the gratitude practice, you’re creating the habit of noticing and really “taking in” positive experiences automatically, by looking for them each day.

Make intentional acts of kindness a daily habit. There are so many opportunities for these throughout every day, it’s just a matter of taking them! Make a practice saying a kind word in place of a complaint (or instead of no word) to the person who checks out your groceries, answers the phone at a business, or pumps your gas. Do or say something thoughtful for a family member or friend. Kindness reaps what it sows in us, so notice whether or not you might start feeling more kindly toward yourself as a result of making a habit of kindliness.

Move your body every day. There’s no question that exercise and other physical activity reduce stress levels and boost the “well-being” chemicals circulating in the brain and bloodstream, as well as helping our bodies be more energetic and healthier in the long run. Once again, a commitment to a daily practice of exercise teaches the body to expect it, as well as to expect its positive results.

Sit in quiet attention for a period of time every day. Spending even one minute each day (but the more the better) just sitting quietly without “doing” anything else, just noticing the moment within and without, gives the mind a rest from all the reacting and story-telling it does otherwise. It’s not even necessary to “try to relax” or “try to be calm” (which can backfire anyway, since these involve “trying”). Just taking some time each day to sit still with whatever thoughts and emotions are going on can have a profound settling effect, boosting those well-being chemicals in the brain. My own practice is to do this 30 minutes each day…and I can tell the difference when I don’t!

I’ll end this post with one more (my current favorite in these difficult-in-many-ways days on the planet), which Colleen gave me during our visit. Here it is in her handwriting, as she’d copied it into her journal:

img_1754.jpg

 

 

 

 

 

 

On Happiness (part 1 of 2)

August is  “National ‘Admit You’re Happy’ Month” –Who knew?

And what better time, thought I, to focus on the topic of happiness than the sunny days of summer?

Still, as I thought about writing about it, I hesitated…for kind of a long time.

The thing is, I’ve long had a kind of prejudice against the idea of “happiness,” as I understood it. It seemed like a basically shallow experience to strive for (sort of like wishing for “joy, lite”), based as it is (was my thinking) on external factors that come and go, and on our basically ego-centered desires and aversions. As opposed to those deeper, less conditional experiences of joy, for instance, or of love, both of which can involve the experience of happiness, but both of which can be present without it (for more on this distinction, see my earlier post on joy ). 

But I’d also started to question my prejudice against happiness (which prejudice sounds as ridiculous as it is, when I see it in print!), since there’s no question that people with generally happy dispositions (or who are otherwise able to experience happiness) are more resilient in the face of adversity, have better relationships, and experience better physical health, among other benefits.

I was also aware that His Holiness the Dalai Lama himself talks a lot about happiness, and its importance to human life. He even wrote  the book on it: The Art of Happiness , which has become a classic on the subject (he has also written The Book of Joy ) “If the Dalai Lama is that enthusiastic about happiness,” I thought, “maybe I should…reconsider it.”images

So I started reading, and found his essential thesis to be simple, and unequivocal: that happiness is the purpose of life. And, in being what our lives most essentially lean toward and reach for, the longing for happiness, he says, is deeply connected to the experience of hope, without which (hope) we die.

In  Compassion as the Source of Happiness  (a teaching on the Dalai Lama’s website), he explains why:

“[O]ur survival is based on hope – hope for something good: happiness. Because of that, I always conclude that the purpose of life is happiness. With hope and a happy feeling, our body feels well. Therefore, hope and happiness are positive factors for our health. Health depends on a happy state of mind. […]

He then goes on to locate happiness within the larger scope of human experience:

This is the basic human level that I am speaking about; I am not speaking about the religious, secondary level. On the religious level, of course there are different explanations of the purpose of life. The secondary aspect is actually quite complicated; therefore, it is better to talk just on the basic human level. 

So what is that level, and what is its happiness made of?

The basic elements for [happiness] are compassion and human affection, and these come from biology. As an infant, our survival depends solely on affection. If affection is there, we feel safe. If it’s not there, we feel anxiety and insecure. If we become separated from our mother, we cry. If we are in our mother’s arms and held tight, warmly, then we feel happy and we’re quiet. As a baby, this is a biological factor.

This makes such total sense to me that it dissolved my problem with happiness on the spot. How could I have forgotten about  Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs ? What I then understood was that happiness — the hope for happiness, and the ability to strive for and receive it– rather than being essentially shallow, is essential and necessary (not in itself sufficient, but definitely necessary) to our full access to other levels of experience (joy, say, and love). That it’s a biological need, and given that our bodies are where all the other dimensions of our being –spiritual, mental, and emotional– “live and move and have their being,” the hope for happiness –for the creature comforts (literally) of safety, security, connection, and pleasure–is necessary to our ability for those other dimensions to develop and to thrive.

Ironically, for all my (previous) difficulty with the concept of happiness, Jane Kenyon’s poem, “Happiness” has always been one of my favorites. images-1Kenyon herself struggled throughout her life with sometimes crippling depression, and died in 1995 at age forty-seven.  And I think it is in how the poem at once comprehends and acknowledges the ways that happiness can show up within and beside suffering (not in place of it),  its qualities of universality and surprise, and the dimension of grace involved that move me so in Kenyon’s poem.

The poem begins:

There’s just no accounting for happiness,
or the way it turns up like a prodigal
who comes back to the dust at your feet
having squandered a fortune far away.
And how can you not forgive?
You make a feast in honor of what
was lost, and take from its place the finest
garment, which you saved for an occasion
you could not imagine, and you weep night and day
to know that you were not abandoned,
that happiness saved its most extreme form
for you alone.     
(click here to read the entire poem, which can also be found in the collection below)

download

Next post: “Cultivating the Habit of Happiness”

“Care of the Soul”

Twenty-five years ago, American psychotherapist and ex-monk Thomas Moore published  his book, Care of The Soul…and it immediately struck such a chord for so many readers that the book spent forty-six weeks on the New York Times best-seller list, and has been reprinted many times since.295132

Gathering some books from my shelves to accompany me on a soul-needed retreat recently, the title caught my eye, and I took it with me. Gratefully re-reading it over the course of my week of reflection, it was as though I was reading it for the first time, reminding me of how timely and timeless Moore’s words remain.

So what was the chord it struck then, and now? Maybe it is in the way the book speaks to the longings of so many among us to find a way to reintegrate spirituality (a sense of connection to mystery and meaning) into our lives—lives that have become weary and guilt-ridden as a result of all that problem-solving and striving for “self-improvement”  that our “can-do” culture tends to pursue (and to encourage), and that many (even most) standard therapy approaches reinforce.

“In the modern world we separate religion and psychology, spiritual practice and therapy,” writes Moore, in the introduction to the book. It is a separation, he says, that was unknown in earlier centuries of healing practices in the western world. But in our nation’s founding zeal to separate church and state in order to ensure for all the freedom to choose and to practice religion (or other spiritual practice) without persecution, we ended up pretty much throwing the “baby” (the conversation about the life of the soul) out with the “bathwater” (the power of any given religion to dictate the lives of its citizens), at least in secular life. As a result, modern psychology has become essentially secular and ego-centered. About the “self” (the ego) that is, but not about the “soul.”

With the soul having become off-limits to the field of psychology, psychology ended up aligning itself at the beginning of the 20th century with medicine: a safely “scientific” field which itself had become interested in understanding and treating mental and emotional disorders.

A result, however, was a severe impoverishment of the earlier scope of modern psychology, and a growing emphasis on “cure” (of symptoms) versus “care” (of soul).

And here’s the big irony: the word “psyche” itself in Greek means “the soul, mind, spirit, or invisible animating entity which occupies the physical body,” with “psychology” supposedly the field of knowledge of exactly that, and “psychotherapy” its tending practice.

In effect, then, we ended up with a “psychology” and “psychotherapy” without “psyche,” and treatment reduced to what could be called (I’m making this up:) “egotherapy.”

And it is that ancient understanding of the psyche/soul (the existence of which was assumed by both secular and religious peoples until very recent centuries) that Moore means when he talks about “soul” in the book: less a “thing” (in the object sense of a “thing”) than it is “the font of who we are […] holding together mind and body, ideas and life, spirituality and the world.” A dimension of our lives with a life of its own, distinct from the ego, connected with all other lives and with the source of life itself. “We can cultivate, tend, enjoy and participate in the things of the soul,” Moore says, “but we can’t outwit it or manage it or shape it to the designs of a willful ego.”

From the point of view of an ego-focused-but-soulless psychology, suffering and its symptoms are assumed to represent some kind of individual or relationship failure or imperfection. Add to that the medical point of view, and we have a way of looking at symptoms as indicative of a “disorder” or a “disease.” From both points of view, suffering and its symptoms represent “problems to solve,” which view encourages ever more striving for the perfection of some idealized self and trouble-free existence— a striving which, being futile, only leads to more suffering.

In contrast, Moore says, to attend to the soul is to understand that the soul’s life is, by nature, “complicated, multifaceted, and shaped by both pain and pleasure, success and failure.” It is a life “not without its moments of darkness and periods of foolishness.”  But instead of labeling these experiences as “bad” or “good,” or representing “problems to solve,” care of the soul focuses on the opportunities and possibilities that are inherent in all experiences for growing in “self-knowledge and self-acceptance, which are the very foundations of the soul.” It is an approach that also focuses on listening for, and giving the soul what it needs  to cultivate its well-being, many of which things might be quite ordinary: “more time in the garden,” say, or “a change of scenery,” or “taking the time to savor your food without checking Facebook at the same time.”

In essence, says Moore, The aim of soul work…is not adjustment to accepted norms or to an image of the statistically-healthy individual. Rather, the goal is a richly elaborated life, connected to society and nature, woven into the culture of family, nation, and globe. The idea is not to be superficially adjusted, but to be profoundly connected in the heart […] to all the many communities that claim our hearts.”

 

For more (including specific ways to put this into soul-tending practice, get a copy: Care of the Soul: A Guide for Cultivating Sacredness in Everyday Life, by Thomas Moore. New York: Random House, 1992.

“On Kindness”

 

Before you know what kindness really is
you must lose things,
feel the future dissolve in a moment
like salt in a weakened broth.
What you held in your hand,
what you counted and carefully saved,
all this must go so you know
how desolate the landscape can be
between the regions of kindness.
How you ride and ride
thinking the bus will never stop,
the passengers eating maize and chicken
will stare out the window forever.

Before you learn the tender gravity of kindness
you must travel where the Indian in a white poncho
lies dead by the side of the road.
You must see how this could be you,
how he too was someone
who journeyed through the night with plans
and the simple breath that kept him alive.

Before you know kindness as the deepest thing inside,
you must know sorrow as the other deepest thing.
You must wake up with sorrow.
You must speak to it till your voice
catches the thread of all sorrows
and you see the size of the cloth.
Then it is only kindness that makes sense anymore,
only kindness that ties your shoes
and sends you out into the day to gaze at bread,
only kindness that raises its head
from the crowd of the world to say
It is I you have been looking for,
and then goes with you everywhere
like a shadow or a friend.

(“Kindness,” by Naomi Shihab Nye)

As do many who know it (and many do), I cherish this poem– one of the poems which continues to deeply, directly, even intimately in-form me as I meet the challenges of live and love.

But what I want to write about here is not so much “kindness” itself (the poem does that, and beautifully), but about how writing (and reading) poems is such a powerful way to take what we suffer —what we think and feel and lose and grieve and love and celebrate— and take ourselves somewhere by giving these things shape and form with words.

Truly, poetry (along with movement and music) is one of the most powerful mental health tools I know.

I have been thinking about this again as we enter poetry month (every April!), and of the words and the poetry  specifically of poet and teacher, Naomi Shihab Nye. In an interview a couple of years ago with Krista Tippett (on the wonderful radio program, On Being) Naomi spoke beautifully about exactly that, with a story about how the poem above came to be in her own life. So I’m just going to let Naomi do the talking from here, from a transcript of that July 28, 2016 interview:images-1

One thing I’ve tried to say to groups over the years, groups of all ages, is that writing things down, whatever you’re writing down, even if you’re writing something sad or hard, usually you feel better after you do it. Somehow, you’re given a sense of, “OK, this mood, this sorrow I’m feeling, this trouble I’m in, I’ve given it shape. It’s got a shape on the page now. So I can stand back, I can look at it, I can think about it a little differently. What do I do now?” And very rarely do you hear anyone say they write things down and feel worse.

They always say, “I wrote things down. This isn’t quite finished. I need to work on it.” But they agree that it helped them sort of see their experience, see what they were living. And that’s definitely a gift of writing […] It’s an act that helps you, preserves you, energizes you in the very doing of it.

She then tells about the experience that resulted in the “Kindness” poem:

My husband and I were on our honeymoon. We had just gotten married one week before […] And we had this plan to travel in South America for three months. And at the end of our first week, we were robbed of everything. And someone else who was on the bus with us was killed, and he’s the Indian in the poem. And it was quite a shake-up of an experience. And what do you do now? We didn’t have passports. We didn’t have money. We didn’t have anything. What do we do first? Where do we go? Who do we talk to? And a man came up to us on the street and was simply kind and just looked at us, I guess could see our disarray in our faces.

And just asked us in Spanish, “What happened to you?” And we tried to tell him. And he listened to us, and he looked so sad. And he said, “I’m very sorry. I’m very, very sorry that happened,” in Spanish. And he went on. And then we went to this little plaza, and I sat down, and all I had was the notebook in my back pocket and pencil. And my husband was going to hitchhike off to Cali, a larger city, to see about getting traveler’s checks reinstated. Remember those archaic things?

And so this was also a little worrisome to us because, suddenly, we were going to split up. I was going to stay here, and he was going to go there. And as I sat there alone, in a bit of a panic, night coming on, trying to figure out what I was going to do next, this voice came across the plaza and spoke this poem to me, spoke it. And I wrote it down.

It helped her through the moment, as a stranded 20-something woman, writing things down…but it did so much more: it made her heart larger, and her compassion deeper, in the way that can only happen when we lose all the strategies (money, privilege, judgement, distraction) we use to insulate ourselves from the felt-knowledge that this could be you. But that transformation and deepening can perhaps only happen when we also pause and pay attention to that experience; when we listen to our suffering through language (which could as well be the language of paint or of music, or another), instead trying to get away from it, till [y]our voice/ catches the thread of all sorrows/ and you see the size of the cloth. It is a state of being that poet Kaveh Akbar  has called a kind of “permeability to wonder,” which is also the door to joy .

To listen to the complete podcast of Krista Tippett’s interview with Naomi Shihab Nye, click here )

Then go write something down.