I have worked with people in suffering for the last twenty years of my life. I’ve written here before, about how illness is the great equalizer. People of all size, shape, and identifier–visible or invisible, succumb to disease. People of all walk suffer from pain, morbidity, and mortality. People from all walk find themselves in need of care, at some point in their lives.
It is near impossible to keep it that simple. Our identities give us shape, and our stories give us meaning. The way I talk, from beneath all the rhetoric, constructs, and socially appropriate scripting, is based in my deep understanding that death and sorrow know no boundaries.
When I see a human aching in struggle, I want to give him or her more than compassion and placation. I want to help them find freedom. I want them off the train of oppression our social constructs have dictated–not riding on it, not driving it, not enabling its status quo, not outrunning it–free from it, and helping pull others off in an uplifting way. Lofty, I know. We are wired to lock onto that which will undo us, not that which will free us.
Listening is important. Comfort is important. Validation matters. Yet, to listen to the same life-limiting tapes, without movement from behind those tapes, is to enable someone to whither, as opposed to thrive. My greatest wish for us all, is that we may be welcomed to the point in our stories where thriving is an option.
And I am usually kind. Once in a while I am too blunt, intrusive, cavalier, irreverent, or too provocative in my invitation. But here is my truth: I have watched hundreds of people, keys in hand, turn their back on the gate. You cannot pull a person through to joy. It’s not possible.
I’ve spent hours of my life standing quietly alongside people who will not face that gate. Now, when I walk through life, I can see it without even trying. It affects all of us, at some point, but once you come through that gate–what a life. I’ve seen that, too, in brightly poignant moments, and in people who have traded in suffering for ease–in the smile of the wizened elders, the Gees Bend Quiltmakers, Anne Lamott, the ones who walk with certainty of place within the enormity of the universe.
You might know someone in your life. The truth is not lost on them, but they have discovered how to be least constrained by it. This is the stuff life goals are made of, and I believe we are all capable of fighting for it, receiving it, and even welcoming it. We need not pay forward the muscle memory of misery.
If you are reading this, I have only respect for you–all of you, and all the parts of you–but especially the stuck parts. Excavating, honoring, and patiently attending to the stuck parts has been my 24-7 career for the last ten years. Literally, I carried my own after-hours call in psychiatric practice, every day for ten years. From that place, knowing just how things can end up for a person on the wrong Thursday night, at about 2:00 am, I do not subscribe to the expected, prescribed scripts society wants me to use.
Consequently, I will not enable illness or the insidious manifestation of oppression to suffocate you, if it shows up in my presence. I will, in fact, laugh with you, cry with you, piss you off by provoking it, but I will never, ever feed it. I will never pet it. I will never enable it.
And so I have always been a challenging friend. A good friend, but a challenging one, in that I say things I’m not supposed to say. From a place of deep respect, I will not be any part of a loved one keeping his or her head in the sand, and that doesn’t feel good when your head is in the sand.
I know only because I’ve had it handed to me, too, and though it makes my blood boil, and I start to swerve around and make a story about how someone is in the wrong, I will take it 100 out of 100 times. We all get by with a little help from our friends, even if that means they are agitating our demons or dragging us toward that terrifying gate.
The things that come out of my mouth can be easily misunderstood, as insensitive, rude, or just plain wrong. And I’m absolutely certain I am wrong, often. I miss, I push too hard, and sometimes I do not actually understand. Then, I apologize, and so this is another thing I have learned–friends who need to have their heads in the sand indefinitely, because their stories are too big, or their resiliency is too fragile, or who have struggled to the cool resting spot on Self-Righteous Island (a lovely vacation spot), do not accept my apologies well.
Things do mend with time, though, and they come back together differently, which is ok. Sometimes space lets things breathe, and Woodpeckers are nice in moderation only. If you’ve known me for some time, and we’ve been closer or more spacious in our friendships, you know what I’m talking about.
This is my apology for any hurt my words have caused, my celebration of each of you, and my acknowledgment that I am a Woodpecker, all in one fell swoop:
May you walk with ease in this life, whenever you can.
May you find increasing moments of trust, that others have your back, even as so many stand against you.
May you understand that the ridiculous things that leave the mouths of others are simply their best efforts to love you, and may you feel empowered to accept, or decline these offerings as it suits your wholeness.
May you honor your story, in all its darkness, and protect every spark of light you’ve salvaged, and may that grow greater, and burn brighter as you age, with the least strenuous effort.
May you stride through the gate, from suffering into joy, fully forged by the fires of your past, and the lives of those who’ve walked before you.
May you be a beacon of their cumulative lights, and carry them well.
May you be free.