It is strange how things come into your life when you most need them. I made a friend recently. We met at a social networking event. The room was crowded and noisy and you had to yell to be heard. I was wedged between strangers on a circular bench table. He was on the edge, silently watching the proceedings, looking a tad too grateful for the fact that, positioned as he was, he could at any moment just get up and walk away. I struck up a conversation with him, seeing that he was not really participating in any of the myriad buzzings around us.
I don’t know how it happened, but within a few minutes we had determined we shared the bones of the same story. My dad was in the air force. So was his. His dad was a pilot. So was mine. His dad’s plane crashed when he was a kid. So did mine. Both our dads did not survive. Both of us are the eldest of three siblings. Both of us grew up very quickly because of that moment.
We sat across this table, in this loud and raucous room full of surface meetings and glass clinkings and though we were strangers we recognized each other, recognized the very particular trauma that comes from losing a parent so suddenly when you are a kid. I think we recognized the sad, bewildered and terrified children in each other.
If we are all our own worlds, this was like taking the TGV to the centre of my earth. It happened quickly, dizzyingly. Through this man, twenty years my senior, who has lived a very different life than me, I met the wounded, panicked fluttering child heart of myself.
It is rare to have these glimpses into the continuum, these millisecond revealings of how we are threads woven into the same fabric. Though the room was so loud with people trying to be heard over each other, where you could not move without prodding or poking someone, I experienced a slowing down, an expansion of space and silence.
It was my counsellor a few months ago who said it to me, probably when I was whinging about something or other. I can’t remember the context right now, but I do remember distinctly her telling me to remember that I only ever meet myself. At the time, I took this to be only in the negative sense and thus was terrified at the thought. Still, it nagged at me, wouldn’t leave me alone. It felt the way it does when you are probing a tooth ache- you know it is going to be painful if you place your tongue on it, but you do it anyway just to see if the pain is still there.
Whenever I am upset with someone, or am turned off by the way somebody behaves, I have been asking myself how I am meeting myself in this moment. It is not a comfortable question nor does it lead to any comfortable conclusions. When I, say, encounter someone’s callousness in the face of the other’s pain, or their inability to listen, I have to ask myself why that resonates so strongly with me, why does it make me so uncomfortable. What is that behaviour mirroring in me? To ask this question honestly, without judgement, is hard work.
Still, doing it is essential I think. In terms of keeping ourselves honest and not letting our harsh judgements and criticisms become detached from a sense of the flawed nature of humanity, ours or others. If we can hold in our minds our own shortcomings, and that when we encounter other people, we bring those flaws to meet them just as they bring theirs, perhaps there would be a little more self-awareness. And with self- awareness comes empathy.
So yes. In the negative sense. Lately I have had to face the fact that I fall into the same patterns, those that began that day in 1982 when my teacher came to fetch me out of class and I was confronted with my mother in tears, surrounded by other tearful adults.
I still remember that moment by the way, that world-shaking revelation that adults cry, just like children. Up until then I had never seen it. Something was terribly, terribly wrong. My world went off-kilter. Everything I thought was real and true got thrown up in the air and jumbled. In a way, I don’t think I have ever recovered.
It is tiring always having to face oneself. It makes me want to never meet another human being again for fear of what other flaw, what other terrible self-told story I will have to encounter and face.
But a couple of days ago, someone flipped this concept of only ever meeting yourself from tails to heads. That yes, what you most dislike in other people is probably a reflection of what you dislike in yourself. But also, what you most admire and respect in other people are qualities that you most like and admire about yourself.
Huh. The flip side of that coin, where you could also meet the positive side of you when you meet others, never occurred to me.
Which is probably saying a little too much about how my mind works.
This flipping came up as I was describing a moment that felt like it shifted the earth into a more harmonious, better place.
On Tuesday, May 16th, my sister Katie stood up in front of a whole crowd of women and spoke about emotional leadership. I wish I could convey how beautiful she was up there. How poised and real and so strong and resilient in her pain and vulnerability. She spoke about the death of her son this last September and the constant, acute pain of it. The meta-stories that go with having lost your child, the “if-only’s” that play constantly in your head, the way I imagine torturers torture their victims by playing death metal at deafening volumes for hours on end.
She cried at first, but she took a deep breath and told her story. The pain of it. But also the lessons learned. How her son is near her all the time and how she is finding in this, the worst tragedy, how to listen to herself and to be true to herself.
What I saw on that stage was the epitome of courage and resilience. Of infinite wisdom and calm in the face of what is the worst possible thing to ever happen to a parent. She stood in front of the crowd (her first speaking engagement ever, I might add) and was so completely, so utterly herself. She shone. She shone so bright the room was bathed in light, though it was a grey, gloomy west coast day.
A space in the world opened up in that moment, a space felt in the hearts of all those present. Though the story was heavy, and painful, it was also light and full of joy. Her son was beside her as she spoke and she did so without hesitation, without stumbling over her words.
Time slowed down. There was just this space and silence in which to appreciate what it means to live and to die, to love in the face of impermanence. Essentially, to get a fleeting glimpse of the fluid catastrophe of this, our human condition.
I understand a little bit more about the mechanics of inspiration now. If it is true, and I think it is, that we meet reflections of ourselves when we meet others, then meeting someone who has found the courage and wisdom to take a life shattering event and make it meaningful, even beautiful, means that you just met that potential within yourself.
They just showed us what our best selves looks like. Now it is up to us to notice it, acknowledge it and then the hard part: live up to it.