Of all the compliments you could receive, perhaps the best is that you feel like shelter. That, in all the storms and chaos that swirl around us, talking to you feels like safety. Not in the sense of being a yes man or echo chamber, or even in the sense of being able to do anything to stop the storm, but in the sense of home.
“I find it shelter when I speak to you,” says Emily Dickinson. What might we do and say to make someone feel that way? Shelter implies that the storm is still swirling, the elements are still fierce, but talking to you is a respite from that and an entry into something welcoming and safe. A place where you are known, and heard, and cared for. A place of comfort.
Certainly there are plenty of people making themselves someone’s storm. Wouldn’t it be wonderful to be someone’s shelter instead?
What can you do in this increasingly chaotic and exhausting world for someone to find it shelter when they talk with you?
Most of us will not be inventing a vaccine to end this pandemic or donating millions to the research. Most of us will not be heroes in the saving the day sense.
And yet each of us has incredible power to choose how we want to meet each day when life is so stressful. Whether we want to retreat into a cocoon focused only on our own wants and needs or use this as an opportunity to reach out to others. Whether we want to add to someone’s anxiety or be their shelter in the storm. Whether we want to be comforted or to comfort.
And the impetus for any acts of kindness comes from the deep recognition of how important those acts of kindness have been to you when you have despaired. The kind gesture, the comfort of a friend simply abiding with you as you travel a dark path, the reminder that you are precious when you’ve forgotten and can see only your mistakes. These have been your lifeblood. And you can offer that gift to others, particularly now. Take a moment to enjoy this profound poem by Naomi Shihab Nye.
Before you know what kindness really is you must lose things, feel the future dissolve in a moment like salt in a weakened broth. What you held in your hand, what you counted and carefully saved, all this must go so you know how desolate the landscape can be between the regions of kindness. How you ride and ride thinking the bus will never stop, the passengers eating maize and chicken will stare out the window forever.
Before you learn the tender gravity of kindness you must travel where the Indian in a white poncho lies dead by the side of the road. You must see how this could be you, how he too was someone who journeyed through the night with plans and the simple breath that kept him alive.
Before you know kindness as the deepest thing inside, you must know sorrow as the other deepest thing. You must wake up with sorrow. You must speak to it till your voice catches the thread of all sorrows and you see the size of the cloth. Then it is only kindness that makes sense anymore, only kindness that ties your shoes and sends you out into the day to gaze at bread, only kindness that raises its head from the crowd of the world to say It is I you have been looking for, and then goes with you everywhere like a shadow or a friend.
So much of our suffering is invisible. Loneliness, sorrow, depression, not fitting in. We can bind up our own cuts and scrapes, but how do we bind up those kind of wounds?
There is an old parable about heaven and hell. In both, people are forced to eat with spoons that are too long to feed themselves. In hell, they are starving. In heaven, they feed each other.
When it comes to these invisible hurts, we are healed by kindness, one to another. We don’t know when we are being kind that it may help someone, but it certainly can’t hurt. And it may be just the long-spooned nourishment that someone else needs.
To inspire acts of kindness today, watch this video of a poor baby elephant stuck in a muddy hole. The gratitude its mother shows its rescuers will melt your heart.
In this interview, Brené Brown discusses the complexity of emotions we are experiencing as a result of the pandemic and social isolation. Her words bring comfort and solace to all of us, but particularly those of us raised to believe that only positive emotions should be felt or expressed.
These are tough times. And it’s particularly difficult because this is not an emergency you have to gear up for and get through; it’s a slow burn. As she says:
“Normally, in order to get through a crisis, you know, our bodies are built to respond with a lot of adrenaline, a lot of energy, a lot of super coping surge. And then the waters recede or the fires are out or, you know, the crisis ends and we slog our way through kind of cleanup and trying to find our new normal. But we are not going to be able to depend on the adrenaline surge for this, because it’s going to out- it’s going to outpace us. And I think we are hitting that moment where we are weary in our bones. We are physically tired. We, you know, anxiety, uncertainty take a lot out of us physically. I think, you know, we’re on Zoom calls. I don’t know what happened. Like, I work a lot to begin with, but I feel like I’m on Zoom calls from 6:00 in the morning until midnight. You know, and then we’ve got toddlers crawling up our backs and partners trying to, you know, tell us to be quiet. They’re also are being called. And we’re tired. And I’ll tell you, the other thing that’s exhausting; that we are not acknowledging – again as a collective – is grief.”
And the grief is perhaps more extensive than any we’ve felt before. It’s grieving a loss of everything that was normal to us. Brown explains, “Well, I think it’s a very difficult position we’re in right now because I think we are both grieving the loss of normal and grieving the ordinary moments that make the touchstones for our lives. We’re grieving the loss of those at the very same time we’re having to find and settle into a new normal. And those two things are very difficult to do. At the same time, not mutually exclusive, but as close as it gets without being mutually exclusive. So there’s grief, I think. Grief is the loss of normal.”
And it is ok to experience that grief and mourn those losses. We are vulnerable, and there is no shame in acknowledging that:
“To be alive is to be vulnerable, to be in this pandemic, is to be vulnerable every second of every minute of every day. And the thing about vulnerability is it is difficult, but it’s not weakness. It’s the foundation and the birthplace of courage. There is no courage without risk, uncertainty and exposure. And so, you know, I’ve asked 10000 people that this question, starting with special forces military: give me an example of courage in your life that did not require uncertainty, risk and emotional exposure. And in probably 15 thousand people at this point, not one person has been able to give me an example of courage that did not require vulnerability. So we need to dispel that mess and we need to acknowledge we are in a lot of vulnerability right now. That means we can be our best, bravest selves or we can be our worst selves, and I think the thing about choosing to be our most courageous selves is having to understand this is another method to style that most of us know we’re taught growing up that we’re either brave or afraid, that the truth is we can be brave and afraid at the exact same time. Most of us are in these moments today.”
We can be brave and afraid at the exact same time. We can be strong in our vulnerability. And, even though we are living a new normal, we can choose how we show up there.
There is an elephant in the room. We don’t talk about it, we try not to think about it, we pretend it doesn’t exist. That elephant is the fact that we are all on a one way journey through this life. Our time is limited. None of us knows in advance when our end of the journey will come, but that end will come.
When we pull ourselves out of denial and gaze directly at this elephant, we can realize something important: our opportunities should be seized now. That good we can do? Don’t put it off. That kind word? Say it. That gift or remembrance? Give it now.
We will not have this place and time and opportunity to make a difference again.
Many are on the front lines of this pandemic, either working in health care or in essential jobs to keep the world moving, while others of us are on the sidelines waiting. We worry about ourselves, but also about our friends and family members on the front lines. Will they be safe? What are the right words to encourage them and let them know we love them?
In this interesting article, health care worker Dorothy E. Novick suggests Ring Theory as a way to modulate our expressions of concern. It works like this:
“I came across an article about “Ring Theory,” written by Susan Silk and Barry Goldman. In this construct, we imagine a person who is suffering, like Margi, sitting in a small circle surrounded by concentric rings. Her dearest relatives sit in the circle closest to her. Best friends sit in the next larger circle. More friends and colleagues occupy the next one. And so on.
“According to Ring Theory, a person in any given circle should send love and compassion inward, to those in smaller circles, and process personal grief outward, to those in larger circles. To Margi and her mother, I should have said, “I love you, and I’ll do everything I can to support you.” And only when talking to others should I have said, “Her suffering feels impossible to bear.
“Comfort in, grief out.
“Ring Theory works for supporting health-care providers during the trauma of covid-19. We are grappling with a complex duality of mission plus terror. We are proud of what we can contribute and passionate about our patients’ well-being. But we are frightened — for our safety, for our patients, for the spouses and children we might expose.”
When we speak with people working in positions of danger, practicing Ring Theory makes good sense. Our comfort, praise, and admiration gives those heroes strength and helps them continue. Our hysteria or forwarding doomsday articles simply doesn’t. In all of this, we should strive to do no harm and let our words offer comfort.
Novick relates a message she received that helped give her comfort, a message that gives us a good example for how we can show up for people in dangerous positions right now:
The message read, “I am holding you in my heart being on the front lines of these difficult times. The professional skill, kindness, support and tenacity you give your patients and your medical community I am sure is a comfort in this darkness. Sending much love, appreciation and admiration.
“My heart rate slowed and my skin warmed over as I read the message. Then I pulled my mask over my face and opened the door to the next patient room.”
That, right there, is the power of the right words at the right time. We each have that power to do good right now.
We are each called to new challenges today. To make a difference, to protect the community, to keep our hope alive. Over the last few weeks, we have seen stories of both tremendous generosity and simple acts of kindness. And of compassion and resolve from leaders such as this from Queen Elizabeth.
As we move forward, Queen Elizabeth’s challenge to act in a way which will make us proud years from now rings true. How we respond to these times defines us. Consider the acts of this little boy working to secure PPE for his local hospital.
What are we here for anyway? What’s the point? Some people joke, ‘Life is hard, and then you die’, and there’s some truth to that. We are finite. We struggle. But there is purpose to life, and it lies in what we do for others. Andre Agassi says,
“Remember this. Hold on to this. This is the only perfection there is, the perfection of helping others. This is the only thing we can do that has any lasting value or meaning. This is why we’re here.”
Others joke ‘The one who dies with the most toys wins,’ but those things we do purely for ourselves are vanity. Instead, when we use our gifs and talents to reach out and help others, we’ve upped the good in the world. We’ve made a difference.
Though isolated, each of us has the ability to reach out. Phone calls, cards, texts, care packages. Others need to hear from you. They need to know someone cares. And you need to know you care about others. If you have extra, you can share. If you are going to the store, you can pick up something for someone who can’t go out. So many ways to help. And in the helping, we help ourselves as well.