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After Riley died (see previous post) I felt completely numb. I had comforted the friend who had the devastating fate of finding Riley unresponsive in his apartment bedroom. I had hugged his broken-hearted mom many times. I had even spoken at his memorial service. Not once did my eyes well up or my voice break through all of this. I felt callous and guilty. I tried to tell myself that I saw this tragedy coming, so I had been ready. I tried to tell myself that, at the end, Riley had been so miserable that he was better off, despite what the rest of us still selfishly wanted. But nothing made me really feel the pain of losing a close friend, a kindred spirit.
Finally, after three weeks of numbness, I cracked. I’m not like an actor who can choose when these emotions will come or how strong they will be. The Mexican restaurant in Dunwoody was far from an ideal location for this needed release, but that’s where it happened. Sitting in a booth with a long-time, very close friend – one of about three people on earth I have ever completely fallen apart in front of – I shed a tear…my voice broke…and I fought back sobs for forty-five minutes.
My friend Mike had never seen me like this despite all of the times we had gotten naked in front of each other…all the times we had stripped bare together. No, no, I fear that the dirty minds out there might be misreading my completely appropriate, non-sexual metaphors. You should be ashamed.
Let me try again: Mike had never seen me cry despite fifteen years of pretty much telling each other about every up and down and deep, dark secret. He had seen my anger and plenty of sarcasm – my two preferred ways for letting pain seep out. But this was different. Mike sat there in respectful silence and said the perfect words of comfort: “Tim, we’ll figure this out together. Obviously, you’re hurting, and I’m here for you. I’m with you in this.”
We sat awhile longer as I tried to compose myself, and then Mike went and changed my entire outlook on myself…
“Tim, can you think of anyone you know who might feel what you’re feeling right now?” he asked.
I responded with the anger I had been feeling at losing someone who got IT: “Yeah, my friend who just died.”
Then he asked me a life changing question: “Tim, what would you tell him if he was feeling what you’re feeling right now?”
Clouds parting…beams of light…eyebrows raised at how much easier it suddenly felt to give myself some grace. In the span of time it took to pose that one simple question, I felt I had been given a new lease to love myself and care for myself despite how depressed and hopeless I felt around that time.
Would I ever tell Riley he needed to suck it up and keep moving forward if I knew he felt like I did right then? No, I’d tell him to take a few days off and see how he felt. Why couldn’t I make the same decision for myself without feeling guilty…like I was failing somehow?
Would I tell Riley that he’d be failing his family if he needed to call time out for a bit, spending some time alone or playing the music that was his only escape? No, I’d tell him that the best version of himself is what he owed his family, and by insisting on forging ahead on the current collision course with disaster, he was certainly not doing his family any favors. I’d tell him it was okay to be weak and to hurt and to be exhausted. I’d tell him it was okay to love himself and to get better.
Mike’s question was raised six months ago now, and I still think about it all the time. Through my mindfulness meditation practice, I’ve also been given some similar images to hold in my mind as I practice self-compassion:
One option is to call to mind a moment when your child seemed particularly vulnerable and those I’d-do-anything-for-this-child instincts took over. By imagining yourself as that very child, you can begin to feel a softness toward yourself just as if you were watching your child try not to cry after falling off his bike. You’d look at the quivering lip and say, “It’s OKAY, little one! It’s okay to cry. I know it hurts; let’s go get an icepack.” You’d hug your child and comfort him/her. (Well, I hope you would!)
Or imagine your own self at a moment in childhood when you felt particularly vulnerable, wishing someone would tell you it was going to be okay, wishing for mom or dad to pick you up and wrap you in comfort and safety. Then return to that moment and be the Adult who parents that hurting, scared child who is still inside of you…inside all of us.
If you’re like me, being tough on yourself comes rather naturally. Why can’t you be more like so-and-so, Tim, and just let things roll off your back? Why can’t you be less of a roller coaster to live with? Why do you insist on thinking about unanswerable questions incessantly? Stop, dammit! What the hell is your problem? Everyone else seems to be handling life’s realities waaaay better than you. Get it together, Tim!
But I’d never say those things to my children or to my friend, Riley, especially if I could look inside their heads and hearts and see the angst raging in them that I feel inside myself so often. I’d just want to sit with them, to let them know they’re not alone…ever. I’d want to say, “I’ll keep sitting as long as it takes because I love you. We’re in this together, all the way to the end.”
So why don’t I say the same things to Tim that I would say to Riley?
What I’ve learned in the past six months is that, when I do practice self-compassion – and I don’t think you are likely to improve much unless you take the time to actually practice – my entire outlook on my struggles changes. By being kinder to myself, I end up being more loving and patient with others. I become more honest about how I’m feeling, less ashamed to admit it. Oddly, I even feel more hopeful that the rough seas are survivable. The water may even become calm someday.
But if it doesn’t, Tim, you’re still valuable, and I still love you, always.
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Also, if you’d like more Mike Edwards wisdom, take a look at his blog, especially if you like to hear someone express very non-traditional theological views. Enjoy: http://mikeedwards123.wordpress.com/