Giving up control.

control

We want to support the people we love as they go through difficult times, but how often does that support turn into telling them what to do or criticizing them for what they’ve done? How often does it make our loved one feel smaller or shamed or detached? What message does our trying to control them or the situation send them about our confidence in their abilities to handle the curve balls that life throws at us all?

In this powerful column on the concept of holding space, Heather Plett explains how we can show up for the people we care about without controlling them or the outcome, how our presence can be constructive rather than destructive, how we can offer support in a healthy way. She learned these lessons from Ann, a palliative care nurse who helped her deal with the challenges of her aging mother’s impending death. Here are Heather’s eight take-aways:

  1. Give people permission to trust their own intuition and wisdom. When we were supporting Mom in her final days, we had no experience to rely on, and yet, intuitively, we knew what was needed. We knew how to carry her shrinking body to the washroom, we knew how to sit and sing hymns to her, and we knew how to love her. We even knew when it was time to inject the medication that would help ease her pain. In a very gentle way, Ann let us know that we didn’t need to do things according to some arbitrary health care protocol – we simply needed to trust our intuition and accumulated wisdom from the many years we’d loved Mom.
  2. Give people only as much information as they can handle. Ann gave us some simple instructions and left us with a few handouts, but did not overwhelm us with far more than we could process in our tender time of grief. Too much information would have left us feeling incompetent and unworthy.
  3. Don’t take their power away. When we take decision-making power out of people’s hands, we leave them feeling useless and incompetent. There may be some times when we need to step in and make hard decisions for other people (ie. when they’re dealing with an addiction and an intervention feels like the only thing that will save them), but in almost every other case, people need the autonomy to make their own choices (even our children). Ann knew that we needed to feel empowered in making decisions on our Mom’s behalf, and so she offered support but never tried to direct or control us.
  4. Keep your own ego out of it. This is a big one. We all get caught in that trap now and then – when we begin to believe that someone else’s success is dependent on our intervention, or when we think that their failure reflects poorly on us, or when we’re convinced that whatever emotions they choose to unload on us are about us instead of them. It’s a trap I’ve occasionally found myself slipping into when I teach. I can become more concerned about my own success (Do the students like me? Do their marks reflect on my ability to teach? Etc.) than about the success of my students. But that doesn’t serve anyone – not even me. To truly support their growth, I need to keep my ego out of it and create the space where they have the opportunity to grow and learn.
  5. Make them feel safe enough to fail. When people are learning, growing, or going through grief or transition, they are bound to make some mistakes along the way. When we, as their space holders, withhold judgement and shame, we offer them the opportunity to reach inside themselves to find the courage to take risks and the resilience to keep going even when they fail. When we let them know that failure is simply a part of the journey and not the end of the world, they’ll spend less time beating themselves up for it and more time learning from their mistakes.
  6. Give guidance and help with humility and thoughtfulness. A wise space holder knows when to withhold guidance (ie. when it makes a person feel foolish and inadequate) and when to offer it gently (ie. when a person asks for it or is too lost to know what to ask for). Though Ann did not take our power or autonomy away, she did offer to come and give Mom baths and do some of the more challenging parts of caregiving. This was a relief to us, as we had no practice at it and didn’t want to place Mom in a position that might make her feel shame (ie. having her children see her naked). This is a careful dance that we all must do when we hold space for other people. Recognizing the areas in which they feel most vulnerable and incapable and offering the right kind of help without shaming them takes practice and humility.
  7. Create a container for complex emotions, fear, trauma, etc. When people feel that they are held in a deeper way than they are used to, they feel safe enough to allow complex emotions to surface that might normally remain hidden. Someone who is practiced at holding space knows that this can happen and will be prepared to hold it in a gentle, supportive, and nonjudgmental way. In The Circle Way, we talk about “holding the rim” for people. The circle becomes the space where people feel safe enough to fall apart without fearing that this will leave them permanently broken or that they will be shamed by others in the room. Someone is always there to offer strength and courage. This is not easy work, and it is work that I continue to learn about as I host increasingly more challenging conversations. We cannot do it if we are overly emotional ourselves, if we haven’t done the hard work of looking into our own shadow, or if we don’t trust the people we are holding space for. In Ann’s case, she did this by showing up with tenderness, compassion, and confidence. If she had shown up in a way that didn’t offer us assurance that she could handle difficult situations or that she was afraid of death, we wouldn’t have been able to trust her as we did.
  8. Allow them to make different decisions and to have different experiences than you would. Holding space is about respecting each person’s differences and recognizing that those differences may lead to them making choices that we would not make. Sometimes, for example, they make choices based on cultural norms that we can’t understand from within our own experience. When we hold space, we release control and we honour differences. This showed up, for example, in the way that Ann supported us in making decisions about what to do with Mom’s body after her spirit was no longer housed there. If there had been some ritual that we felt we needed to conduct before releasing her body, we were free to do that in the privacy of Mom’s home.

That #4 is a tough one, yes? We want to be important; we want to save the day; we think we know best. But giving others a safe place to find their own path forward empowers them to meet future challenges with resilience and courage. If they are dependent on us and our ‘wisdom’, they may not trust their own abilities. And, let’s be honest, do we really have all the answers anyway; isn’t life surprising and full of struggles that we don’t anticipate fully? Don’t we all need to develop the resilience and courage to respond to these challenges?

For more on Terry Crews and the background of the powerful quote above, including his conclusion that we can evolve and change and do things better, go here.

Be amazed.

amazement

When was the last time you were amazed? Maybe it’s time to look around you and marvel. The complexity, the beauty, the interconnection of all things. The realization that all this amazingness swirls around you and in you and through you every second of every day. That you live and breathe it, that you are a part of it –both inside as something to be marveled at yourself, and outside as something to behold the beauty and majesty of it all and marvel. And then love it all intimately despite the vastness.

Going counter-culture.

dalai

Is kindness passé? Patience out of date? Love revolutionary? In today’s world, these virtues seem counter-culture. People are quick to be mean, impatient for their own way, and blinded by hate. The loudest rant dominates over the considered opinion.

In this commencement speech, Jake Tapper urges the graduates to be kind, to shy away from meanness, the easy and lazy option:

How can we go that extra distance to show up in this world as kind and patient, to refuse to meet meanness with meanness, but instead with the loving response?

The littlest heroes

burdens

There are the larger than life heroes who accomplish monumental things, and then there are the everyday unknown heroes who may be even more inspiring if only we knew their stories. They are just like us, regular folks, without a forum or bankroll, doing their best to make the world a better place for all people.

Consider 4 year old Austin Perine. He has made it his mission to feed the homeless. (And inspired Burger King to offer him $1000 to do it!) He does it because ‘It’s just the right thing to do.”

His motto is simple: Show Love.

 

That’s a mission we can all get behind: Show Love.

 

 

Err in the direction of kindness.

direction of kindness

What do we regret most as we contemplate the end of our time here? Maybe the lesson from that regret can inform our present. In an outstanding commencement speech, George Saunders reflects on his own failures and encourages the graduating students to look for opportunities to be kind. He reflects on a memory haunting him from his childhood:

In seventh grade, this new kid joined our class. In the interest of confidentiality, her Convocation Speech name will be “ELLEN.” ELLEN was small, shy. She wore these blue cat’s-eye glasses that, at the time, only old ladies wore. When nervous, which was pretty much always, she had a habit of taking a strand of hair into her mouth and chewing on it.

So she came to our school and our neighborhood, and was mostly ignored, occasionally teased (“Your hair taste good?” — that sort of thing). I could see this hurt her. I still remember the way she’d look after such an insult: eyes cast down, a little gut-kicked, as if, having just been reminded of her place in things, she was trying, as much as possible, to disappear. After awhile she’d drift away, hair-strand still in her mouth. At home, I imagined, after school, her mother would say, you know: “How was your day, sweetie?” and she’d say, “Oh, fine.” And her mother would say, “Making any friends?” and she’d go, “Sure, lots.”

Sometimes I’d see her hanging around alone in her front yard, as if afraid to leave it.

And then — they moved. That was it. No tragedy, no big final hazing.

One day she was there, next day she wasn’t.

End of story.

Now, why do I regret that? Why, forty-two years later, am I still thinking about it? Relative to most of the other kids, I was actually pretty nice to her. I never said an unkind word to her. In fact, I sometimes even (mildly) defended her.

But still. It bothers me.

So here’s something I know to be true, although it’s a little corny, and I don’t quite know what to do with it:

What I regret most in my life are failures of kindness.

Those moments when another human being was there, in front of me, suffering, and I responded . . . sensibly. Reservedly. Mildly.

We all have so many opportunities to make a difference, just by simply being kind, offering a smile, reaching out in friendship. And, when we reflect on the kindnesses that have made the difference to each of us in our own lives, we realize those little shows of kindness are what matter.

Saunders continues to remind each of us that our inner selves, our souls, shine as brightly as ever, and, even as we strive for success, to keep checking in with that inner place, and to believe it exists and greet the world from there:

Do all the other things, the ambitious things — travel, get rich, get famous, innovate, lead, fall in love, make and lose fortunes, swim naked in wild jungle rivers (after first having it tested for monkey poop) – but as you do, to the extent that you can, err in the direction of kindness. Do those things that incline you toward the big questions, and avoid the things that would reduce you and make you trivial. That luminous part of you that exists beyond personality — your soul, if you will — is as bright and shining as any that has ever been. Bright as Shakespeare’s, bright as Gandhi’s, bright as Mother Teresa’s. Clear away everything that keeps you separate from this secret luminous place. Believe it exists, come to know it better, nurture it, share its fruits tirelessly.

When you are confronted with a choice, err in the direction of kindness.

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The benefits of giving each other the benefit of the doubt.

trust

How often do we give others the benefit of the doubt? Do we assume the innocent explanation or conclude the worst?  Are we patient, or do we pounce at the very first mistake someone makes in trying to get their thoughts out? Do we search for the best in others, or do we protect ourselves in advance about the damage we fear may be inevitable by opening our hearts to trusting someone again?

Wouldn’t it be lovely to live in a world where everyone gave everyone else the benefit of the doubt? Where perceived offenses weren’t allowed to fester and grow? Where there was trust?

Consider this beautiful poem on friendship by Dinah Maria Craik. Isn’t this how we would like to make each other feel?

 

Friendship

by Dinah Maria Craik

Oh, the comfort —

the inexpressible comfort of feeling safe with a person —

having neither to weigh thoughts nor measure words,

but pouring them all right out,

just as they are,

chaff and grain together;

certain that a faithful hand will take and sift them,

keep what is worth keeping,

and then with the breath of kindness blow the rest away.

Love is…

ownway

In his letter to the early church at Corinth, Paul sets out how love shows up in the world in his effort to help them get along. It is a frequent text for weddings:

Love is patient and kind; love does not envy or boast; it is not arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful…” 1 Corinthians 13:4-5.

To those about to marry, an interesting exercise is to substitute the name of your beloved each time the word ‘Love’ appears. And an even more interesting exercise, for all of us, is to substitute our own names instead of the word ‘love’:

I am patient and kind; I do not envy or boast; I am not arrogant or rude. I do not insist on my own way; I am not irritable or resentful….

How did you do? For many of us, this simple recitation shows us the exact ways and times we are being less than loving and calls us to consider those actions. Must we insist on our own way? How do we know what is right? Isn’t it possible that someone else may be right, too? Are we becoming impatient with others? Can we take a minute to rein ourselves in, breathe deeply, and begin again? Are we holding grudges? Can we let the past go and try to make our present the best possible? And so on.

These checks we can do to measure our progress and monitor our moods against the ideal of love can be very helpful to keep us on track showing up in this world as close to lovingly as we can get.

 

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Mom wisdom.

philosophers

Did you know that just the sound of your mother’s voice can be soothing, eliciting chemical reactions in your brain? For a heartwarming example of a baby reacting to her mother’s voice for the first time, watch this video:

Over the years, our mothers are there for the ups and downs of life, offering their advise and comments. Mothers help us to make sense of things, comfort us when we are blue, and prepare us for the future.

What are some pearls of wisdom you learned from your mom? Please share them in the comments.

To get you thinking, consider this delightful list of motherly insights.

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Thank your teachers.

onepen

We are each born helpless. How we got from there to where we are now depended on the generosity of many people. Among those are our teachers, those people who devoted their time to making sure we understood the world around us and how to negotiate the ups and downs of the road ahead. Those teachers who went beyond the lesson plan to help us learn not just facts, but how to think and analyze, how to care and feel, and how to reach out to others deserve our unending gratitude.

Savor the scent

smell

Smells can shortcut the synapses and connections in our brain or body and take us straight back to the past. A certain perfume, the ground wet after a gentle rain, cherry tobacco in a pipe, a campfire in the woods, whatever it may be, and our mind flashes to a different time we smelled that smell. Sometimes it takes us right to a time when someone we lost was still with us. Sometimes the smell can calm us or give us courage. Sometimes that smell takes us to a place where we can remember something or someone we once loved. When this happens, we can pause and be grateful for that person or thing. If the smell takes us back to an unpleasant memory, we can pause and be grateful that we survived that particular obstacle and moved on, and we can celebrate our strength.

For a lovely instance of a mother’s smell calming a crying baby, take a look at this video:

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