Dose #18: Some Things Aren't meant To Be Fixed, But You Can Stand By
"One of the most sincere forms of respect is actually listening to what another has to say."
~ Bryant H. McGill
This week I had lunch with an old friend. We've known each other for 26 years.
Recently he's had legal difficulties...drinking and driving. He was fined, temporarily prohibited from getting behind the wheel, then after completing a course for 'impaired' drivers, granted permission to motor to and from work and doctor appointments. By the time we met, privileges were fully restored.
As we sat face-to-face on this sunny, winter afternoon in an Upper East Side restaurant with white table cloths and polite, heavily accented waiters, the sad details began to emerge. My friend described a day with not one, but two accidents - a midday 'fender-bender', then a second, more serious mishap on a highway known for its potholes and thrill-seeking, lane-changing young men who come out late in the night to claim the road as their own.
Fortunately, there were no injuries, but the day ended with my dear friend standing handcuffed for nine hours in a cold, dirty cell, with a toilet and narrow, bare metal bunk meant for sleep. A "crazy story", he called it, and I agreed considering what had happened and who I know this man to be - a physician, devoted to the healing of those broken by life and time.
Over the years I wondered if there was more to know, more than I wanted to believe...times when my friend seemed more cheerful than the moment allowed, blaming 'giddiness' on how happy he was to see me. Something off.
On this day he was reserved, quietly describing how alcohol had helped him cope with sadness. After a drink or two he would feel carefree, even hopeful - he'd found a way to "sail through the day."
As we parted, I turned to wave goodbye - head down, not looking back, as if he'd given all he could at lunch, he never saw the wave. I walked to the train station carrying his sadness, a heaviness that lingered through the week.
There's little I can do. Listen. Be there. Never judge. Be a witness to his life. He has to do this himself. Not just the part about not drinking...he seems resolved, motivated to do that, realizing how much worse things could have been. It's the despair...how, I wondered, will he overcome - no - will he overcome that? I'm not sure.
In the early years as a fresh, out-of-the-box Cognitive Behavioural therapist, I thought I could help everyone. My department chair said I'd have to learn my "limitations". I thought he was wrong. I would make the sad, happy, the fearful, courageous, the angry, confident.
As a research assistant at Miami Heart Institute I rushed into my mentor's office, listing the ways behaviour change could save a patient's life. This aged cardiologist sat back in his chair, folded his hands in his lap, tempering my delivery by slowing his own..."Look", he said, "...everybody's going to die of something someday".
In a post-doctoral program my supervisor responded with gentle laughter when I ran to find her, saying I'd, "ruined my career", as my obvious frustration slipped in front of a difficult patient. "What took you so long?", she asked. After months of opposition, the patient's response to my relentless optimism - a hard-won, successful defeat of every effort. My supervisor understood what can happen when we fail to recognize limitation. Perhaps more naive than wrong - I had a lot to learn.
Recently a client told me she didn't want to talk on a day she was feeling particularly unhappy because what she needed most was to "vent", not, 'to be fixed'. The importance of being heard...the importance of listening. Only listening. I'm still learning.
Over the years I've changed my mind about turning every negative into a positive, every sadness into contentment, every fear into courage, anger into reason. Beyond manuals and textbooks, sitting with real people living their real lives, I accept the need to be with what is felt. The paradox - what we allow grows less potent; what we fight rears up, again and again. There's value in every experience, and high or low, good or bad, nothing lasts forever. The power in listening...enlarged by the power of patience.
When my friend told his story, I felt helpless. My only offering, love. Care. A willingness to abide, no matter what. As for my own sadness, it was feedback - a reminder of what it means to care. Some things shouldn't be fixed.
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