Learning the healer's art: Why I will give awkward hugs, say too much of the wrong thing, dance when I am lame and sing when I am tone deaf.
I went to a funeral a while back. It was difficult: the kind of funeral that came far too soon and left far too many people behind. It really hit me hard, reminding me how fleeting and fragile life is, and how important relationships are.
Because it was a colleague at my school, the people who attended were almost all people I knew, people from past and present. After the funeral I went around and hugged nearly everyone I saw. I felt awkward about it. I'm sure I seemed awkward, but it felt important to me to connect in some way. Having just had a reminder of the extreme fragility of life and the speed with which it ends, I felt the need to physically, tangibly connect with those I knew and cared about. It felt urgent for them to know I cared about them. Connection seemed more important than the awkwardness.
I grew up with a terrible fear of being awkward, of not being smooth and easy. I feared that my personality was off-putting and intense, my voice too full of energy and emotion, my laugh too frequent and loud. I wanted to be smooth and polished, but feared I was probably not. I wanted to be Cary Grant, but realized I was probably closer to Ethel Merman or Jimmy Durante. I likely would have been a huge success as a Vaudeville performer.
However the Vaudeville era is over. So I started trying to learn to be quiet and pull back a bit. This is not necessarily bad. Having a sense of time and place, trying to listen to others, working to not hijack conversations, or monologue like a super-villain at the end of the the movie--these are good things. I believe in trying to improve and grow; I've always felt that it is self-indulgent to do otherwise. It is something I still struggle with, something I work on constantly. I often leave conversations realizing that I over-shared or over-laughed or over-many-other-things and am usually trying to calibrate appropriately.
I learned to accept this and work with it. Big personalities can be work well in some venues. I focused on trying to find those and on cultivating the friendships that seemed to withstand that larger-than-life lack of smoothness. I shrugged everything else off. This was okay until a few years ago.
I had a beloved colleague, now retired. She is one of the most amazing people I've ever known, the most empathetic, loving, encouraging, supportive person I've met, and many others would say the same thing. For decades, she was sort of the Mother Confessor of students, parents, and teachers alike. Her tireless ear heard countless troubles and she always knew the right thing to say. Her gentle voice encouraged countless people to keep going. She was the quiet in the storm for many, many, many people. I was among those who benefitted from her warmth and care. As she neared retirement age I looked around and realized that there was no heir-apparent. I didn't know who would fill her role--a role I saw as being critical to a middle school.
I decided someone needed to follow her. So I decided to try. This was not because I felt qualified. Far from it. But it seemed to me that the students deserved someone trying to do this. At least I could make an effort in this regard. If someone better came along, wonderful. Until then, I'd do the best I could. It was like the cafeteria stopped serving prime rib. All I could offer was ground beef, but it was better than nothing, I reasoned.
I started trying to listen. I started trying to look for those who were struggling. I started trying to encourage and give hope. I started trying to respond with empathy, warmth, and compassion to everyone I met.
I italicize trying because this was not natural to me. I don't pretend to be good at it. But the effort changed my heart. It honestly changed my aspirations, transforming what I want to do and who I want to be. I want to be a healer, an encourager, a confidante. I want to be actively empathetic, compassionate, and kind. That became my truest, deepest, and most consistent desire and I started trying to reach out beyond my little corner of the world.
There was only one snag: my awkwardness. Deep down, as I tried to reach out and do these things, I feared that my efforts were clumsy and clunky. I felt I was doing the equivalent of trying to dance an emotional ballet in hiking boots. Still I persisted, hoping I wasn't quite as inept as I feared, trusting that good intentions might smooth over awkward execution.
My fears were confirmed a few years back when a Facebook friend made a comment to the effect that I had a big heart but came off in awkward ways. The person intended no harm, indeed, was actually trying to help me. And, in all honesty, the statement is true. The person had no way of knowing just how much I feared this exact thing, or for how long I'd struggled with it. Still, even with no malice, having someone I respected publicly articulate my worst fear covered me with icy shame. I froze.
It was ironic to come to the point where I no longer cared about the stuff we usually worry about, the normal markers of success. I didn't care about money or influence or being a famous author or anything. I just wanted to be kind and warm. But my personality, with it's lack of limits, it's constant state of being too-much-something, now created a barrier to what I wanted to accomplish. I think beyond that, we don't often conceptualize men as healers or nurturers, and so that likely contributed to this general clunkiness.
For a while, I just stopped trying, paralyzed by that shame, by the knowledge that I was, indeed, awkward and probably ridiculous.
But my shame and lack of deftness did not make people stop hurting. The fact that I was unskilled did not provide comfort to those around me. Certainly my inaction helped no one.
There were still people who needed help. I didn't have much, I wasn't all that they needed or deserved, but it felt selfish to not try to reach out, even if I knew I was lacking.
So, I continued my efforts in real life, with students and parents, with people at church, sometimes online, but I did so with a sense of shame and embarrassment. Each effort to reach out made me feel foolish, like a child who was dressed up in some strange mix of his parents' clothes that didn't fit and didn't match.
The reality is that I don't have many skills. I'm not handy in a way that allows me to fix people's cars or help with home repair projects. I'm not wealthy, so I can't write checks to good causes. Some people always know what to say, seem to know intuitively how to listen, or see what needs to be done to help. I am not one of them. Emotionally, I want to sing, but know I'm often tone deaf.
This leaves me with a choice. I can allow myself to be defined by what I am not; I can surrender to the shame and constant sense of being ridiculous. That would simply involve being quiet, something that is safe, comfortable, and natural for an introvert.
But the world is a difficult place. There are so many rifts and wounds and battles. Our times cry out for people who want to heal, who want to bind and repair, who want to make peace. I know and admire some people who do this well, but they have so much to do. So I guess I need to step up, even if I can't do it smoothly or with perfect-pitch. I can't be Cary Grant. So my choice, I suppose, is to try to be encouraging and empathetic. Even if I'm Ethel Merman I can try to encourage, try to reach out, try to listen, and help.
I can only do what I can do, but our world seems to grow harsher, less civil, more unforgiving and unkind. We need healers and soothers, speakers of peace and softness to individuals and groups. Connection seems more important than fearing awkwardness. I've come to the point where I fear not trying more than I fear being ridiculous. The hope that I can be helpful or encouraging to another human is greater than my shame at what I lack.
Forgive me if I overshare, over-praise, over-do. Forgive me if I don't listen well, if I say too much, too loudly, too often. Forgive me when I give awkward hugs at funerals (note: given the fact that I'm a big guy I have started asking before I give a hug. That feels awkward sometimes but I am trying to reach out while still respecting people's space and autonomy.) I will risk saying too much, or the wrong thing, when I try to encourage people. I will go visit people in the hospital even though I don't know what to say. I'll try to find little ways to reach out to struggling people even if it doesn't really help.
Our world needs kindness, compassion, gentle hearts, listening ears, and encouraging words. Our world, and the individuals therein, need healers. Soothers. Builders. Unfortunately, neither saints nor angels seem to be available for the job.
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