The man at the left—Danny Jones—was too shy to let me photograph him for a slide show I did earlier this year about Pete’s Place, the interfaith shelter for the homeless in Santa Fe, where I volunteer as chaplain once a week. Danny died last week at the apartment that shelter workers had helped him procure. He had lived under a bridge for years prior to that, and it took a great deal of courage on his part (and encouragement from the shelter staff and volunteers) to get Danny, a veteran with many problems, into that apartment to stay.
Danny apparently died in his sleep of natural causes. He had many medical problems, some related to his years of homelessness. I had last seen him at the shelter—where he still came by to see the Health Care for the Homeless nurse— a few days before his death. I am so grateful I had talked with him recently.
When I first met Danny, he scared me. He was usually unclean and always unkempt, his hair longish and greasy, his beard untrimmed, his hairy stomach sticking out of his too-tight shirt. He had very few teeth, and as a result, it was almost impossible to understand him. He would stare at me out from under his ancient ball cap whenever I tried to make contact, then growl at me, and when I said, “I’m sorry sir, what did you say?” he’d wave a hand at me in disgust and look away, or struggle to his feet and walk off.
But something happened one day. I understood something Danny said. I think I had asked him something banal, like, “How are you today, Danny?” and he mumbled back, “Awful!” I stopped. “What’s wrong?” I asked, sincerely. “What’s not wrong?” he quipped. Hallelujah! We had connected. It was a start.
Our conversations often were simple verbal jousts, he usually pretending to complain about something, me querying, he making a clever comeback. Our relationship soon became physical. Danny liked to pretend he was going to hit me, or push me over, or elbow me. The first few times he did this, I was startled, and jumped away as if my life was at stake. And then I got it. Danny wanted to play!
After that, whenever Danny pretended he was going to smack me (and instead smacked his fist into his other hand, not into my face) I would do the same, act as if I were going to punch him in the arm, and then miss. I also began to make it a point to put a hand around Danny’s shoulder, or on his back. It was purely instinctual on my part, but when I later thought about it, I realized probably no one ever touched Danny (except, perhaps that nurse he needed!).
To me, this is one of the greatest tragedies of being a homeless person: most are loners. A few have partners and presumably intimate lives, including the healing touch of someone who cares. But many get little in the way of safe human touch except perhaps for an isolated sexual encounter. The women in the shelter hug one another, and some hug the men. But the men rarely touch each other, except in that locker-room, brawling fashion of slapping each other on the back or arm.
So I made a point of touching Danny, and Danny never violated the unspoken covenant invoked by my touch. That is, he never touched me inappropriately. The last day I saw him, he was sitting at one of the dining hall tables. I stood, talking with him, and put my hand on his shoulder. He put his hand on my calf, and we stood there, comfortable together, talking amiably. He had come by to see the nurse, he said, as always; his knees were hurting. I was always amazed that his physical complaints were so few. Danny was obese, and I suspected diabetic; I knew he sometimes drank, had smelled alcohol on his breath and seen signs of drunkenness. But he wasn’t always drunk, and he was never surly or belligerent to me or others, that I saw. The skin on his hands was terribly calloused from years of exposure to weather. He must have hurt all of the time, inside and out.
The most I ever learned about Danny was that he was from somewhere in Kansas, and had been a truck driver at one time. He could talk about the highways all over the Midwest and West, the places you didn’t want to get caught in a snowstorm, and the like. I never heard him mention a family member, wife or children. Once I saw him on the street and walked out of the shelter to talk to him, afraid he wasn’t coming in that day. We talked about how Santa Fe had changed, the businesses on Cerrillos Road that had disappeared, how different everything was now, compared to years ago. As neighbors do.
There was just something about Danny, and I loved that something. Perhaps it was that playful little boy I perceived in him, joking and jousting and joshing, which belied his years and his suffering. He seemed to be who he was, not pretending to be anything different.
I am going to miss Danny. I will even miss his hairy stomach. I remember how Joe, the shelter’s director, begged Danny to take a shower one day, even found a new, clean shirt that would fit him, and just when Joe thought Danny had agreed, he was gone.
At some point, I quit seeing Danny’s oversized gut, and I quit worrying about whether I understood everything he said. I believe we had achieved what Father Gregory Boyle says is the most important thing to achieve: kinship. We were both just people, after all, trying to get by.
So many people pass us by during our lives. The ones we remember are not always the ones we expect to remember. I know I’m going to remember Danny.
*What can we learn about ourselves as we struggle with the practicalities of illness and suffering?
*How do we keep going when we’re in shock and numbed out?
*Where can we find inspiration, motivation, laughter and enthusiasm in the face of fear?
*How do we empower ourselves to heal?
Join other women with the same questions and find answers together in a free, three-hour workshop facilitated by breast cancer survivor Hollis Walker and hosted by the Cancer Foundation for New Mexico. (Please note: This workshop focuses on the “inside job,” not medical treatment.)
Empowering Ourselves to Heal is held the second Saturday of each month, 10 a.m.-12:30 p.m., and is open to women who have or have had breast or reproductive cancer. Participants need not be in active treatment to attend. The group is offered on a drop-in basis; there is no need to register. Anyone with questions can email Hollis, revhollis[insert “at” symbol here]holliswalker.com, for more information. Workshops include sharing, brief meditations, and creative expression (writing, collage, etc.)
The workshops are held at the Cancer Foundation for New Mexico, 3005 S. St. Francis Drive, Suite 3-B. (The Foundation is in the building between the Cancer Center & Albertsons, next to the Double Dragon restaurant.)
Facilitator Hollis Walker is a breast cancer survivor who is also a board-certified clinical chaplain, ordained interfaith minister, and writer. She works with individuals as a spiritual coach and counselor and facilitates support groups for women. Hollis has lived in Santa Fe since 1987. Her book on her experience with breast cancer, The Booby Blog: A Cancer Chronicle, was published in late 2014.
The Cancer Foundation for New Mexico is a local nonprofit organization that provides financial assistance and support services to cancer patients in Northern New Mexico. Its mission is to help save lives by providing the needed support to enable every Northern New Mexican with cancer to access treatment in Santa Fe.
Click here to listen to this talk, if you’d prefer:
The title of my talk is “Empowering Ourselves to Heal.’’ For most of my life I wouldn’t have been caught dead at a talk with a title like that. I was a journalist and therefore skeptical of most of the New Age, self-help, pop culture—especially those as-seen-on-Oprah spiritual gurus and the drivel upon which they made their millions.
Ahem. I’ve changed. In 2008, at age 52, I had the realization that all my life I had been leaning to the left, as I like to say, living in a world defined by rational, left-brained, scientific, concrete, “male” values, if you will. I was my military father’s daughter. And those things made me a really good journalist. But it just wasn’t working for me anymore. I wasn’t happy. Carl Jung, the great Swiss psychiatrist, summed up my problem—a problem many of you have no doubt confronted yourselves, especially if you are over 50. Jung said, “Thoroughly unprepared, we take the step into the afternoon of life. Worse still, we take this step with the false presupposition that our truths and our ideals will serve us as hitherto. But we cannot live the afternoon of life according to the program of life’s morning, for what was great in the morning will be little at evening and what in the morning was true, at evening will have become a lie.”
“Leaning left” had become a lie for me. So I consciously began to lean to the right—into the imagination, the spiritual, the abstract, the subjective, the mythopoetic, the dream world—in the hope that I could bring myself into better balance. Better balance within myself, and with the Universe, with Spirit, with Goddess. I decided to suspend disbelief and skepticism, say YES to everything and say NO to nothing. And I asked the Divine to help out. The exact words I wrote in my journal were: “Please crack open my heart.”
We get what we ask for, as they say. I moved with my then-partner to Berkeley, leaving my beloved Santa Fe and my friends here behind. I thought I was going on an adventure, and I was. I just didn’t know it would be a spiritual adventure. And then all hell broke loose. Here is what happened: I left behind my career as an art journalist and critic; I just couldn’t do it anymore. I met a marvelous, 85-year-old woman named Beth who lived next door to us in Berkeley and was sick and alone, and I began taking care of her. I somehow knew I was in that house to see Beth to the threshold of death, and indeed I was holding her hand when Death came for her. Beth’s wasn’t the only death during this time. Seven people I loved, including Beth and my father, died in fairly rapid succession.
I was swimming in a river of grief and loss. And partly because of that I decided to go to seminary and became an interfaith minister. I wanted to be a medical chaplain, to sit with people as I had with Beth, to serve other people who were sick and/or dying. So after I was ordained, I spent a year in a hospital training as a chaplain There I accompanied many people through illness and some to their deaths. In one particularly memorable week, I sat with seven people as they drew their last breaths. I had by then realized I had an uncanny sense of when my patients were actually going to die; I would just get a “call” in my head, to show up in their rooms. Then, toward the end of my chaplaincy training, my long-term relationship ended—as happens to many people who pursue a spiritual vocation—and I started looking for a job as a chaplain.
Some of you have no doubt heard of the Holmes and Rahe Stress Scale. It assigns values to stressful life events, good and bad, and based on that calculates the likelihood you’ll have a serious illness within a year. Around this time, while I was looking for a job, I took the test—and I scored 605. A score of just 300 puts you at the highest risk for having a serious illness in the near future. I remember idly wondering what illness I might get, if the test proved true. But I put it out of my mind, like a bad horoscope.
No chaplaincy job presented itself in California and ultimately I moved back to Santa Fe in 2012. I figured at least I had good friends here, gas was cheaper and the traffic was so much better than in the Bay Area. I began an independent practice as a minister, and after several months of looking, I got a halftime job as a hospice chaplain. Just when it seemed like things were beginning to really develop, I awoke one morning with a voice in my head that said, “You have a lump in your left breast.’’ Indeed, something was developing. The Holmes-Rahe test had been right.
Intuitively, I knew it was cancer. So here are the CliffsNotes on my illness: My cancer was caught early. I had a lumpectomy and radiation therapy and was under the weather for most of a year. Good friends kept me afloat emotionally and financially during that time. I had to quit my job as a hospice chaplain; I found I couldn’t comfort those who were dying while I was wondering whether I was dying.
During the time I was sick, I wrote a personal blog I sent to friends and family to keep them updated on my condition, and to keep me sane. I called it “The Booby Blog.” I also kept a special cancer journal. I’m working on a book based on those two things and hope soon it will be published. It’s called The Booby Blog. I hope you will sign up on my email list so I can let you know when it’s out.
I want to share with you some of the things I learned on this spiritual adventure called Cancer.
One of the first things that happened when I was diagnosed with cancer was I realized I was going to die. Maybe sooner than I thought. Despite the many deaths I had witnessed, my own had remained an abstraction until I had cancer. Then, and throughout my illness, the sudden thought that I will die someday would hit me like a fist to the gut, and I would find myself hyperventilating and quaking inside. And every time it happened, after the panic attack subsided, I would think, “If I’m going to die, I don’t want to miss anything, this, the right here, right now.” So I would go outside and look up at the beautiful Santa Fe sky, or look into the eyes of the friend across the table from me, and say a little prayer of gratitude for the grace to experience that moment. The Tibetan Buddhist continually contemplates his own death. It isn’t a morbid practice. Contemplating your own death keeps you rooted in the present moment. So the first big lesson I got was: We’re all going to die. Really. Think about it—and keep thinking about it.
One of the other things I realized was that, despite all of my clinical training, and despite the fact that I knew better intellectually, unconsciously I wanted to believe that there was some outside authority, an expert—perhaps one doctor who was a lot like Dr. Oz, or Dr. Weil, or Marcus Welby, M.D.—who was going to have all the right answers for me. It was a curious kind of fundamentalism—cleaving to the idea of absolutes, Truth with a capital T. In fact I found my medical caregivers to be ordinary people with particular backgrounds that prepared them to give me some advice. But no one person could tell me everything I needed to know to heal, or how to make the decisions that faced me. Should I have a lumpectomy or mastectomy? Should I take the long-term regimen of hormone-repressing drugs or were the side effects so bad I should forego them? Should I do the standard protocol of radiation or not, knowing that the radiation would kill my healthy cells as well as any cancerous ones? Lesson Two: There is no outside absolute authority when it comes to our own healing, whether physical, spiritual or mental. I am the expert on me, and you are the expert on you!
A corollary to that lesson was that I had to take responsibility for my own recovery. As a chaplain, I had heard many a patient blame their doctors for their illness, or for its advancement, or for their impending deaths. It was never true. Blame is just another function of denial. And I didn’t want to be in denial, not anymore. So once I quit pretending that anyone else knew what was best for me or even good for me, once I gave up the “outside authority” idea, I listened to what everyone had to offer, including the doctors, and did what felt right for me, in my guts. It was terrifying. One of the things I decided was I was not going to do a drug protocol that had the potential for severe side effects. When I told a nurse about my decision, she said to me, “Well, you’d better think about how you’ll feel if you have a recurrence.” So I thought about it. I decided that if I had a recurrence, there would be no way to tell whether it had anything to do with not taking the drugs. There is no simple cause-and-effect with cancer, or most illnesses or even personal crises. Life is much more complicated than that. I decided I could live with my decision, even if I died. I ignored that nurse and anyone else who wagged their finger at me and insisted I do what they recommended. Science supports this notion of DIY recovery, Do-It-Yourself Recovery. Numerous studies have shown that patients who are described as “feisty” or as having a “fighting spirit” and being “uncooperative” live longer than those who are considered “good” and “compliant” patients. That’s Lesson Three: Take responsibility for your own care—body, mind and spirit. Assert yourself!
Another thing that came up for me was that I suddenly recognized I was doing what I also had seen so many patients try to do: Trying to control things. With a life that seemed out of control, a life being run by some invisible and frightening power called Cancer, I took control of everything I could. What did that look like? I researched cancer on the Internet. I read books on cancer. I went to see every alternative practitioner I could afford: a hypnotherapist, an acupuncturist, an alternative M.D., a nutritionist. I went to yoga, I prayed, I meditated. As soon as possible after my surgery, I started walking, and then running, again. I took dozens of supplements. I quit eating dairy and soy and gluten and any processed food at all. And then I remembered James Fixx, the man who popularized running through his 1970s book, The Complete Runner. James Fixx ran 10 miles a day and did other strenuous exercise daily, and at age 52, he dropped dead of heart disease. There are no guarantees. I had been practicing a form of denial, of superstition, a secret belief that said, “If I just do all the `right’ things, then my cancer will be cured and it won’t come back.” Yet my smarter self kept whispering, “Yeah, but there are no guarantees.” Whether I allow myself one tiny slice of flourless chocolate cake a month or binge on Ding-Dongs every day, my cancer might come back. Lesson Four: We have no control over anything, and certainly not over illness; control is an illusion.
So far, this talk is pretty depressing, right? We’re all going to die, no one is coming to the rescue, and it’s all out of control! But they all led to the next lesson I got.
How many times have we all heard the cliche, “Let go and let God”? I’ve heard it so many times myself I want to smack anyone who utters it. Sometimes it sounds too much like giving up. Yet there is some truth hidden in that phrase. Resistance to what was happening was causing me so much pain that I finally started to consciously practice surrender, every single day, to whatever happened that day. For me, it was more of a Buddhist thing than a theistic notion. Instead of trying to change my life, I just kept surrendering to the moment, to the circumstances of the day. It felt better than resisting. Did I do this perfectly? Of course not. But I tried to consciously make that mental shift, and I integrated it into my regular spiritual practice. That’s Lesson Five: Just surrender, whatever that means to you.
One of the things I found most difficult about being sick was that I had to let other people help me. Sometimes I had to ask for their help. My ego was very attached to being a helper rather than a helpee. Now that the tables were turned, I felt weak and useless in many ways. It was hard enough letting others see my vulnerability, but it was most shocking for me to see myself as vulnerable. Talk about humbling. My ego bubble was burst. Nora Gallagher is the author of a wonderful book about illness and spirituality called Moonlight Sonata at the Mayo Clinic. She says that, “It is the [natural] order of things to be vulnerable. The disorder is imagining we are not.” Through having cancer, I saw that we are all in the same leaking boat. We have to take turns bailing. And I have found that being vulnerable, even revelatory, about myself, has the unexpected benefit of fostering intimacy, drawing me closer to my boatmates. That’s Lesson Six: Accept vulnerability; let others help you—and not just when you’re sick or in crisis.
The psychotherapist Lawrence LeShan wrote a book called Cancer as a Turning Point about his research with people who had “terminal” cancer. He discovered that people who have life-threatening cancer often have abandoned important dreams, or never allowed themselves to fully explore their creativity. Likewise, he notes that the poet W. H. Auden called cancer “a foiled creative fire.” LeShan showed that people who had cancer and began to pursue their creativity—either by returning to an abandoned dream or coming up with some new passion—often got better, sometimes were cured, sometimes extended their lives, and at the very least, found joy again, however long they lived.
Before I was diagnosed with cancer, I had planned to start and facilitate a women’s support group. It was supposed to begin meeting the week my surgery was scheduled. I considered cancelling the group, since I was uncertain about my condition in the coming months, but that little voice in my head said not to, so I postponed our first meeting for a week after my surgery. I called it Isis Group, Isis being the great healer of ancient Egyptian mythology, of course. As it turned out, the women who joined the group—the women I thought I was going to help—kept me sane and fed my imagination. That group was and is a creative force for me; it is still meeting, a year and a half later. I also sort of miraculously lost my fear about putting some of my most personal writing out there for others to see, hence The Booby Blog. So this is Lesson Seven: Healing of all kinds is attainable through the pursuit of creativity. Find and do something you love.
These are the lessons I learned that I believe empowered me to heal myself, and that can help you do the same. But some of you may be thinking, where is God, where is the spiritual, in all of this? I believe that God or Goddess, the Divine Power, the Infinite, whatever you want to call it, was with me every step of the way. The voice that told me I had a lump in my breast. . . the intuition that sent me to the bedside of my patients when they were dying. . .the synchronicity of moving into a house next door to someone who needed me as much as I needed her. . .the voice that told me not to cancel the Isis Group. The Divine was there, every step of the way. Through cancer and all the other changes that happened during this period of my life, my faith deepened. I became more certain of the existence of God than ever before. And I became less certain of who, and what, God is. It is an uncertainty I can now embrace.
Thank you for letting me share part of my journey with you. As always, take what you can use and leave the rest. May you be well. May you be happy. May you be at peace. And may we all empower ourselves to heal.
This morning on one of my favorite runs on the Santa Fe Rail Trail I came to a sudden halt when I realized that somehow I’d strayed from the trail onto an adjacent dirt path. The only reason I didn’t stray far was that I’d made the inadvertent detour at a railroad crossing, and found myself inexplicably crossing the tracks sans the usual bright-yellow metal plate below my feet. Luckily, I realized my mistake and reverted to the trail before continuing, else I might have ended up 100 yards further before I realized my error.
How had I veered off course? I was “in my head,” as we say, distracted, not paying attention to the present moment, the present reality. That’s one of the ways we get off our life paths, I think. We just aren’t paying attention and we end up in a bad relationship, a job we’re not suited to, a circle of “friends” who aren’t so friendly.
Now, I’m not one of those people who believe our life stories are already written, that God or the Universe or some Higher Power has already made the movie and we just haven’t seen it yet. I believe we have the power (and responsibility) to create our own life stories, and that most of us know where we’re going, or where we ought to be going, in an overarching, intuitive sort of way that involves a sense of purpose or intention. That’s what I mean by “life path.”
I believe we get distracted and leave our life paths when we fall into unconsciousness, in Jungian terms, and our lives are being directed beyond our conscious understanding by archetypal powers of which we’re not even aware. Haven’t you had the experience of “waking up” to find yourself in a situation you can’t believe you’ve tolerated, even embraced, for some time, feeling that some “other” you has been running the show?
I also think we sometimes allow ourselves to be distracted from our paths because we are being lured off-road by doubts, fear and anxiety. “If I take that job, I won’t have to worry about money,’’ you might tell yourself, even though you know it’s the wrong one. Or, “He’s so attractive, he has money, nice friends— I think I’ll go for him,’’ despite red flags waving all around, because you’re tired of being lonely and fearful you’ll never find a loving partner. Eventually, of course, we come to our senses, often sheepishly admitting to ourselves and our loved ones that we’ve been steering blind.
Staying on the path demands constant attention, rooting oneself in reality and examining decisions with clarity and awareness of previous detours. It means being willing to admit when we’ve strayed and making course corrections as necessary. It also requires faith, a belief that even when we can’t see around the next corner, the path is there, awaiting us.
Are you on track today, on your life path? If so, hallelujah and congratulations. Keep it up. If not, how might you pick it up again? Open your eyes and go.
A couple of interesting books related to this topic: Callings: Finding and Following an Authentic Life, by Gregg Michael Levoy, and The Power of Intention, by Dr. Wayne Dyer.
I have a friend who is extremely smart; she probably has a genius I.Q. She’s also one of those people who seems to know a lot about everything. I often call her up when I’m faced with a decision about which I’m unsure.
The result of those conversations isn’t always as helpful as I’d hoped, however—because she doesn’t always engage in conversation. Instead, she often tells me what to do. What’s especially exasperating about this is that in many cases, she’s right. Her amazing brain has swiftly analyzed the pros and cons, the possibilities and risks, and delivered up the most rational answer.
The problem is that in telling me what to do she robs me of the opportunity to figure it out for myself. And often the most rational answer is not the best answer for me. I need to follow my gut instincts, my intuition. What I need in a friend is a sounding board, someone who will talk with me about the pros and cons, the opportunities and risks, ask me questions about what I really want, help me think it through myself.
By telling me the “right’’ answer, my friend is also reinforcing any lack of confidence underlying my uncertainty. She’s basically saying she knows best, while I probably don’t. Or at least that’s one of the feelings I often take with me after one of those frustrating “conversations.’’
I’ve come to believe that the reason people do this—especially really smart people—is that they haven’t ever realized how dangerous it is to tell another person what to do, no matter how minor the concern or decision.
I learned the hard way about that. Years ago, a close friend of mine discovered her husband was having an affair. She was devastated. She sought my counsel, and the counsel of a few other mutual friends, day in and day out. She shared her sadness and anger, her confusion and uncertainty. She talked and cried almost ceaselessly.
Perhaps we who are the listeners in such circumstances feel especially empowered to share our opinions about what the suffering person should do. After all, we’d been spending hours listening, we knew our friend, we knew her philandering husband. Couldn’t we see clearly what she should do?
We talked among ourselves, and most of us agreed she should leave him. Boot him out. Divorce him. Start over. Most of us shared that opinion with her. More than once. Probably every time she told us of the latest development in the painful drama.
To her credit, while she may have felt swayed by our opinions, she made a different choice, the choice that felt right for her. She stayed in the relationship, set boundaries, made her demands. He ended the affair. They sought counseling. That was 20 years ago. They have a beautiful family and a successful business, and they seem happy.
I was wrong. Dead wrong. And so was everyone else who advised our friend to divorce her husband. We lacked the humility to see that what might be right for us in similar circumstances might not be right for her, what might seem rational to us might not be appropriate for her. We failed to see that she needed to come to her own conclusion, one that was in agreement with her own spirit and Higher Power. Thank goodness she did.
What she most needed from us was our willingness to listen, ask questions, and help her see all the options. She needed to hear from us that we loved and cared for her, that we wanted to support her in any way we could, and that we would stand by her no matter what choices she made, and no matter the outcomes (with none of that “I told you so’’ business).
Our Big Opinions had other consequences, too: Because we were so certain about his “badness’’ and her “goodness’’ and what she should do, and because she didn’t take our advice, some of us had a difficult time re-engaging with them as a couple as they struggled into their revised relationship. Friendships faded.
We all have plenty of life situations in which we must make decisions for others—our children, elderly parents, clients, employees, patients. It’s not as if we don’t get to share the fruits of our intellect and experience with others. But outside of those circumstances, it’s best to hew to the familiar 12-step maxim of sharing only our “experience, strength and hope with each other.’’ In other words, the wisest adviser doesn’t give advice at all.
Telling someone else what to do is never a good idea. Constraining oneself from advising and counseling another in important matters is a mark of true humility and maturity. Even if someone asks for advice, it’s best to simply listen and ask questions. If you find yourself tempted to play the adviser, ask yourself, “What if I’m wrong? What unintended consequences might occur? If I tell her/him what to do, and they take my advice, and it’s bad advice, am I not responsible for the outcome?’’
I don’t mean to suggest that I never fall into the trap of offering advice. Like everyone, I have my moments of self-righteousness despite my best intentions. But I have learned over time that the shared process of inquiry is more gratifying than advising. When we engage in true dialogue with others instead of “advising,’’ we learn most about ourselves. We can see ourselves in our friend’s situation, have sudden insights about problems that are plaguing us, feel the answers materializing in the field between us. This is what humility, maturity and true friendship are all about.
The flip side of this is that when we find ourselves being the recipient of unwanted advice—as I do sometimes with that genius friend of mine—we must at the very least recognize that we are always empowered to ignore advice. We don’t have to listen, and we don’t have to act on another’s advice, no matter how rational it sounds. If we are capable of being truly honest, we can gently tell our friend that what we need is not advice but a good sounding board. In other words, maturity cuts both ways.
It should be patently obvious that these ideas fly in the face of our advice-obsessed culture and its endless TV and radio shows on which “experts’’ of various kinds tell troubled audience members how they should live their lives. (Of course we rarely see the follow-up or find out how the advice played out.) Many of those seeking advice are unwilling or unable to take responsibility for their own decisions, and many also have entirely unrelated reasons for participating in the shows. Some are no doubt seeking their “fifteen minutes of fame,’’ to borrow Andy Warhol’s phrase. Some may not even have the capacity to understand why they are engaging in a public display of personal suffering.
But as we all know, those shows don’t reflect real life—or perhaps reflect only a tiny and surrealistic slice of it. Because in real life, as we mature, we come to know that Cicero was right: “Nobody can give you wiser advice than yourself.’’
These “Don’ts” and “Do’s” aren’t hard-and-fast rules, but guidelines to help you think about how using language thoughtfully can best help a patient (if you are a health care professional) or loved one. I offered these tips most recently to a group of new volunteers for Palliative Care Services of Santa Fe.
Don’t say, “I know how you feel.’’ The truth is, you don’t know how the person feels. Telling them you do robs them of their unique experience; it diminishes their feelings, especially their suffering.
Do say, “I can’t imagine how you feel. Tell me what it’s like.’’ This honors the person’s individual experience and offers them the chance to talk about their feelings.
Don’t say, “It will all be okay.’’ Chances are, it won’t be okay, at least not the way we usually think of “okay.’’ In fact, things could get worse.
Do say things like, “It seems like you are experiencing a lot of big changes in a short period of time.’’ Let them tell you what that’s like.
Don’t ask, “How are you today?’’ This simple question we all usually ask each other can be wearying to the sick person, who has to constantly report medical/health details to nurses, doctors, family members, friends. It keeps the focus on their illness.
Do say, “How are your spirits today?’’ or, “How is your energy today?’’which encourages focus on the mind and heart as well as the body. We are not trying to distract them or deny their illness, but to give them a break, if needed, from that focus.
Don’t talk about “healing” or “recovery,” being “better’’ or “worse.’’ Even the dying often feel they must pretend to family and friends that they are getting better, keeping a positive attitude.You may be the one person with whom the patient feels safe enough not to pretend.
Do accept whatever the patient offers about his/her thoughts and fears about illness and/or death. You need not agree. Say, “That makes sense to me,’’ or “I can see how you would feel that way.’’ In effect, you’re telling the patient he or she is not crazy; their ideas and feelings are acceptable and normal.
Don’t expect the patient to feel, speak or act the same way on each visit, and don’t feel you need to pick up where you left off in your last conversation. Leave last week’s deep topic alone unless the patient brings it up again.
Do let the patient be who they are today: happy or sad, hopeful or angry, vulnerable or shut down. Often a patient who has been particularly vulnerable on one day will later feel very exposed, and withdraw a bit the next time. Let it be okay.
I have created a list of free grief support groups and resources in the Santa Fe, New Mexico area, and would like to share that with you. Please click on the link below to access it. It’s an Excel file.