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resist consoling

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hearse1A few of us walked the body down the elevator, along the long hallways, and out to the van waiting to drive to the funeral home. Once the gurney was loaded and the car doors closed, we just stood there, very still, watching the car slowly pulled away, like a ship leaving its moorings. The man who was seeing off his deceased beloved began to sob again. Just then someone stepped forward, placed a hand on his shoulder, and said that he’d “remember this moment for a long time.”

I reacted with discomfort and annoyance; in my opinon (!) nothing needed to be said. My preference was to remain stumm, to let the moment be, to allow thoughts and emotions arise without consoling commentary. To console, says Webster’s dictionary, “to cheer in distress or depression; to alleviate the grief and raise the spirits of; to relieve; to comfort; to soothe.” Standing there at the edge of the road, seeing his sweetheart’s body being taken away, who could possibly grasp his grief, what words would be of use to him at that moment?

Reacting with judgement to a well-intentioned comment brought my attention to the many ways I use words, give advice, try to make light. In moments of uncertainty, awkwardness, or sudden intimacy, I often speak too soon … when all I really wish is to remain silent and stay open to listen. Speak only to improve on the silence, is the central rule when Quakers gather in worship. No clergy, no sermon, no ritual. An entire meeting can go by without anyone saying a word: Holy Silence.

Parker Palmer offers a startling observation–

The shadow behind the “fixes” we offer for issues we cannot fix is, ironically, the desrie to hold each other at bay. It is a strategy of abandoning each other while appearing to be concerned. Perhaps this explains why one of the most common laments ouf our time is that “no one really sees me, hears me, or understands me.” How can we understand another when instead of listening deeply, we rush to repair that person in order to escape further involvement?  The sense of isolation and invisibility that marks so many lives … is due in part to a mode of “helping” that allows us to dismiss each other.

source: Palmer, P.J. (2004). A hidden wholeness: the journey toward an undivided life. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, p. 117.


9 responses »

  1. Do not speak unless you can improve the silence
    – New England Proverb

    • There’s much truth in the saying … according to my quick internet search several sources are credited, including:
      New England,
      and Baroness Radmilla de Ghent in the movie “Ever After.”

  2. very thought provoking and thoughtful post. I suspect most of us are guilty of trying to “fix” each other’s pain. I am not sure that it comes from trying to hold the other at bay, perhaps. Maybe I am not seeing into it deeply enough, but it seems to me that it comes from our intention to help and to alleviate the pain. When I go a bit deeper with this I then think that “wanting” to take away the pain comes from our personal discomfort with being with pain and with acknowledging that we are not in control. So much is going on, in that split second, when we speak or reach out to touch someone who is hurting. Yes we talk too much and my post here is evidence of that! ah to be human! Wonderful reminder that will make me sit up and pay attention, try to listen more and say less. ……. starting now! ….

  3. thanks leslie — Palmer’s idea that the wish to fix stems from wanting to distance ourselves from the one who’s suffering was new to me. upon reading your words, it occurs that this helping/fixing might be an ego reflex to ward off pain. something like: if i can make your suffering go away, i won’t have to face my own.

  4. yes this feels like the truth to me, we spend a lot of time trying to push away pain our own and others. Another incarnation of attachment, instead of grasping for what we want, we are pushing away what we don’t want. and as always this is the work of the unconscious little self.

  5. Ram Dass writes that “… We project discomfort onto people about their helplessness which doesn’t necessarily exist, or fail to see the character of the suffering that really is there.”
    See Saturday’s post, Leslie.

  6. Any thoughts on the ‘reacting’ to the comment. Most of the discussion has been on the comment itself…I am just curious about the reacting to it.


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