Duck Billed Platititudes

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“Whatever opens us is not as important as what it opens.”  Mark Nepo

“Every pain is important pain to whomever is feeling it.” Sylvia Boorstein

When we are in the middle of our ugliest, messiest, fall on our knees, my goodness, will it ever get better moments, does it help to hear that the sun will come out tomorrow?  I’m not sure it does.

As caring individuals, we offer words of solace during challenging times in sincere attempts to make the hurting go away. And this is so beautiful and helpful…most of the time.

But phrases like “things happen for a reason” can sound really annoying when you are going through a painfully trying time such as dealing with a life changing diagnosis or coping with the loss of a loved one. Maybe we don’t know what else to say, or we, ourselves, are stuck in the muck of discomfort and want to get the heck out of there!

I remember a sweet girl in elementary school who lost her mother in a horseback riding accident. When repeating the pledge of allegiance in homeroom, I could not take my eyes off of her. “She looks the same,” I recall thinking silently to myself, as if losing her mother would cause her hair to change colors. I wanted to reach out to her but was scared, scared to think for even a second about what it would feel like to lose a parent and also afraid of saying the wrong thing. So instead, I said nothing.

I can’t help but feel now that something would have been better than nothing.

But saying something just to make myself feel better as well as trying to alleviate her discomfort could have made matters worse and even more awkward. There is something called “spiritual bypassing” which Robert Augustus Masters, an author and psychologist, writes about. He says, “Spiritual bypassing, a term first coined by psychologist John Welwood in 1984, is the use of spiritual practices and beliefs to avoid dealing with our painful feelings, unresolved wounds, and developmental needs.”

Spiritual bypassing – also known as spiritual materialism – disconnects us from reality, and as the meditation teacher Sylvia Boorstein writes, “these attempts at trying to minimize pain only add humiliation to preexisting pain and make it worse.”

By offering sentiments that we deem helpful, we may in fact have the opposite effect by unintentionally severing the delicate connection between us and thrusting ourselves out of the present moment into an illusionary world where only pretty colors thrive.

But that is not reality. Life can be dark and drab at times, too.

A number of years ago, I was part of a women’s spirituality group. Every two weeks we would gather in a circle and share what was going on for us. The really difficult part came when witnessing someone in tears and not being able to say anything. The point was to allow others to be exactly as they needed to be without so much as offering them a Kleenex, as well as being aware of the reactions flooding our own bodies and minds.

And you know what? These moments where people just listened without speaking were some of the most validating and, in turn, therapeutic experiences of my life. But being on the other side and listening without speaking was incredibly challenging.

It was challenging because we are empathetic beings, and our nature is to want to fix what appears broken.

I would guess that what many of us truly need more than anything is to be heard while being held in a space of respect and dignity. And what I have learned from trial and error is that just because we appear broken, does not mean we need to be fixed.

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5 thoughts on “Duck Billed Platititudes”

  1. Your last paragraph says a lot……..when John died I was broken…..totally…..but no one could “fix me” but myself. My job was to work through my grief……embrace and work, hard work, through it. Some of the most difficult times were when those who loved me so much wanted to “fix me” by their platitudes, i.e., “he’s in a better place”………..really? Get real! I processed it in public on Caringbridge and took many along with me on the ride. Now a few years later I think back on that time and realize that even I had preconceived ideas of what grief (my grief) was and realize it’s not what it appears to be. It is so personal there is no process or outline to follow…..it is trial and error….error on everyone’s part. The most gracious thing we can do is give everyone their space to do it their way. I found the simple words of “I am so sorry for your loss” was enough. Don’t ignore it, acknowledge in the most gentle and simple way. Love you so very much!!!! Susan

    1. Susan,
      Thank you for saying this! I have to agree with you the “better place” comment is a tricky one! I have so admired how you took us along for the ride because although grief is incredibly personal, it is something we all experience somehow sometime. And brave, honest, vulnerable, courageous souls like yourself help model for the rest of us the heart work required and that it is okay to express your grief however you need to. By shining this light on your loss of your beloved, John, you bring freedom and a sense of peace for all of us. It is a testament to the love you two have for one another. Thank you, thank you. Love you!!! Big Kith kith!!! XO

  2. Learning to listen is an art form we are not taught in our culture.

    Most people are too busy thinking about what witty comment they might make in response to others to be truly present with them.

    And tying this into the blog post you put up today, doesn’t this make sense when we are encouraged not to feel? Authentic listening cannot be done without an open heart.

    1. Yes, yes, yes Susan. Exactly, this is why our emotions I believe are so important. I’m encouraged because there is much more attention paid to emotional intelligence and contemplative education for our kids. But I hope these aren’t just buzz words and I don’t think they are. With an open heart and deep listening so much can be healed. Thanks for sharing your wisdom and thoughts. With love!

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