A beautiful inconvenience
Regarding the Journey
“Any story that starts will also end.” Ann Patchett is one of my favorite authors. Her writing is eloquent. She has been called a literary alchemist. Her most recent contribution to the reading world is a collection of essays, one of which touched me profoundly.
At the heart of “These Precious Days” is an incredibly honest and soul-searching reflection on “what it means to be seen.” Within our daily lives we tell ourselves we see people. But do we? Are we really pausing long enough to fully take in the whole person? We are each more than our parts. No one is just a cancer survivor, only a widow, or simply a person of faith. The only way we will understand this with any credible depth is to be available to them, in whatever capacity they need. Stop keeping time. Stop referring to your devices. Stop making mental lists of whatever is next while keeping their company. Hear them. See them. Be with them.
Kate Bowler, another best-selling author, and Anne Patchett, recently recorded a podcast together. During their hour-long conversation they discussed the importance of bearing witness to another’s life, beholding the gifts they had to share with the world. Imagine existing within the combined space of another, only to provide whatever level of comfort was required. The mental acrobatics required to serve only the needs of the one in need are awe-inspiring. They didn’t force casseroles or food plans on their friend, they didn’t bombard their friend with tips or tricks of the trade in a quick effort to fix them, nor did they discount their experience by one-upmanship. They listened. The absolute beauty of such a gift is immeasurable.
According to Kristi Pikiewicz, Ph.D, a practicing psychotherapist and blog contributor to Psychology Today, bearing witness refers to sharing our experiences with others, frequently during the communication to others of traumatic experiences. It is a valuable way to process an experience, to receive empathy and support, to lighten our emotional load via sharing it with the trusted witness, and to obtain catharsis.
Within our daily lives we each have the opportunity to be available to another; to be a witness. Are we taking advantage of this valuable gift? Do we drop what we are doing to really listen to a friend? Most likely we are so busy with our own harried lives that we miss many of the opportunities. After all, the cues are often subtle and we have responsibilities. Most days are filled beyond capacity. I wonder, “What would the world be like if we could slow down and be available in these moments?” And not just be available, but fully present for another in such a non-threatening way as to offer a non-judgmental ear to lighten their load, rather than add to their burden.
For those of us who have sought out talk therapy, we know that much of what a mental health professional does during an appointment is actively listen. These powerful moments don’t always have to happen in a therapist’s office. While the average individual does not have the education and years of experience a trained therapist does, we do have the ability to sit and listen, to give our time — a valuable commodity in this busy world. Even more precious is when we can give of our time without weaving in our opinions.
We will all face life-impacting situations in our lifetime. It’s inevitable. Start preparing now for that time when a friend tells you they’ve been diagnosed, lost a loved one, or experienced a traumatic event. Can you be ready? Can you listen without judging? Can you be present without telling them how to remedy it? Can you keep the stories of another’s journey to yourself in this moment and the moments to follow?
I encourage you to try. We will all likely say the wrong thing during these times. Our minds can’t always behave and function as quickly and accurately as we would like. My hope is that we can know we’ve stumbled and can learn from it so the unintentional act of selfishness isn’t repeated. Built into this thing called communication must be a healthy dose of self-forgiveness.
Lesslee Dort is a board-certified patient advocate who firmly believes knowledge is power when it comes to being in control of one’s health. She spends her days helping others navigate their health care and her free time exploring. Reach Lesslee via email at firstname.lastname@example.org. Read her here the third Thursday of each month.