In the recent and coming days, weeks, months, and years here at First Parish, we unfortunately have been and will find ourselves in many small, medium, and big examples of witnessing people we care about suffering. One of the challenges of being a Unitarian Universalist (particularly of the atheist, agnostic, humanist variety) is not believing in a parental God who is taking care of us when we are sick or have lost a loved one. Seeing how comforted my Catholic friends and family are by prayer and knowing their “father in heaven” is there looking out for them during life’s most challenging times has made me wonder what I have as a UU.
Recently, I happened on Facebook to see a memory from four years ago. It was me wearing a vintage UMASS Amherst sweatshirt a friend had given me in honor of my older daughter’s decision to go to undergraduate school there. Seeing the picture of my long hair reminded me that it was taken right before my journey with breast cancer began. Months of chemotherapy followed by surgery followed by six weeks of daily radiation treatments all while starting a new job and continuing to parent my two teenage daughters while launching the older one off to college. And yet having cancer also became the most transformative chapter of my life. It gave me the answer to my existential UU question. What we have is community. We have each other. And it really makes a difference! People we know and people who care who we haven’t met. Learning to accept the love and kindness of others changed me. Changed me so much that when family hardship hit again and my ex-husband was told his bladder cancer had metastasized and he had only months left to live, I knew we’d get through it with the love of our friends and family. Oh, and believe me, and I know you all know, it hasn’t been easy.
Nanea Hoffman wrote:
You are okay.
You’ve got this.
You are a bad ass.
Maybe you’re not okay.
Maybe you don’t got this.
Maybe you are a tired ass.
Either way, I think you are freaking awesome!
During moments of great vulnerability, we have to remember that it’s okay to struggle, and cry, and not feel okay. To make mistakes and not get chores and work done. This is a simple statement, but it is really important. In our instant gratification culture with quick fixes and figurative and literal pills to pop for every problem, we haven’t been taught how to sit with our pain.
One of my favorite readings is The Guest House by the Sufi poet, Rumi. Google it if you aren’t familiar with it or are inspired to revisit it. His poem reminds me to strive to do sit with the vulnerability, fear, hurt, and pain. Of course, it’s not easy. Frankly, it sucks. It can fucking suck. Yes, this is provocative language to be using at church, but sometimes it is warranted. Actually, I’ve been swearing a lot lately. As my younger daughter struggled with watching her dad get sicker and die and then with the overwhelming grief, i realized that it is surprisingly helpful to say “yes, Skylar, what you are dealing with fucking sucks”. A week after Michael passed, I bought both of my girls and myself a bracelet that says “keep fucking going”. I can’t change their pain and suffering and fear and hurt, but my intense words acknowledge their extreme hurt.
In these last four years, I have unfortunately learned a lot about coping with hardship and how to support your loved ones. Supporting loved ones through pain also sucks … as a mother watching my kids suffer injuries so bad that they had to quit their childhood passions. First a hip impingement for Dominique that ended her gymnastics career and later a foot fracture that led to Skylar leaving dance. Both girls struggled with intense sadness and identity issues coming with having to give up a significant part of their childhood. It hurt me deeply to not be able to fix their problems and make it all better.
And then being on the other side getting breast cancer taught me that what really matters is just simply being there for someone. I watched my family struggle not being able to fix my cancer for me and we all discovered how helping me with simple tasks really mattered and made a big difference. What helped me the most was having people to hold my hand and hug me when I was the most depressed or scared. Or the proverbial version of holding my hand distracting me with a fun activity, listening as i complained, or baking a favorite dessert for me. Sometimes it can be the small, easy stuff that matters most and being present with your love for someone is the best gift of all.
If you really want to help someone who is struggling, or guide someone who is trying to help you cope, I offer these two rules. The first is the platinum rule. I share it often because I believe it’s vital to healthy relationships, but it’s also key for helping anyone dealing with tragedy, fear, and/or that overwhelming vulnerability we feel sometimes. Our default is often to practice the golden rule and treat them the way we would want to be treated. But the golden rule doesn’t work – especially when we are at our most raw, and hurt, and vulnerable. The platinum rule does. Treat the person the way they want to be treated. Ask them what they want and give them only that. Don’t assume you know what they need. In these stories of suffering and tragedy, people are usually feeling powerless. The best gift we can give them is the leadership of and the power to control their healing journey respecting and regarding what they say they want. Even if, or especially if, they say they want nothing from us. Yes, sometimes what someone most needs is time away from us…
Which brings me to my second rule, “support in and get help out”. Imagine that the person most suffering is in the center of a circle. The people closest to that person are in the next ring. And the good friends and extended family are in the next ring. And co-workers and regular friends are next. And so on. For us, Michael was the center. My girls were in that first circle. I’m in the second or third circle. That means I had to support Michael and my daughters not asking for my emotional and other needs to be met by them. I had to find help for my emotional and logistical needs from people at the same level or out. This sounds obvious, but we often are so overwhelmed that we forget to do this. We can angry, hurt, and/or scared and not thinking carefully. Maybe we are specifically angry or hurt by the choices of the person suffering. Maybe the person’s suffering is triggering really bad past memories or extreme fear that this could happen to us. Maybe the story is having significant negative effects on our lives. It was horrible feeling powerless watching my daughters temporarily pause their own lives and put their own overwhelming feelings about losing their dad on hold to be purely empathetic to him in his last days. It’s all extremely complicated when you are living it. We won’t be perfect, but we can start each day making an intention to support those who are suffering more than us and to seek support for our own struggles from those who are suffering less. When I found out that Michael was dying, I started therapy to help me figure out how to do this for him and my daughters. I needed the help from my therapist because practicing the “support in and get help out” and “platinum” rules aren’t my gut response (especially on my most emotional or stressful days), but I wanted to intentionally try to honor these two rules for my daughters. I was far from perfect, but each day, I tried.
As I wrote in the beginning of my blog – In the recent and coming days, weeks, months, and years here at First Parish, we unfortunately have been and will find ourselves in many small, medium, and big examples of witnessing people we care about suffering. May we all remember to do our best in each moment to both “support in and get help out” and practice the “platinum rule”. We need to help each other through our fear and shock and vulnerability and triggers to our past and logistical changes to our lives so that each of us can practice the “platinum rule” for those who are suffering more than us. One of the greatest gifts we have to both savor and share is this beautiful, loving community. When people speak of God, my definition is the Humanist version of a “spirit of love connecting all people”. I feel it when I’m struggling and someone hugs me. I feel it when I’m collaborating and the group synergy creates something so much better than I could have ever created alone. I feel it when I walk through the doors of First Parish. It’s our version of “almost heaven”. May we hold dearly this loving spirit in our hearts and continue generously sharing it with each other.