Duck Billed Platititudes
“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.