Recently, a friend introduced me to an excellent book, Turning Suffering Inside Out: A Zen Approach for Living with Physical and Emotional Pain, by Darlene Cohen. She describes her experience of being helped when she was very ill and required help with absolutely everything.
I found it draining to be helped by people whom I constantly had to reassure that they were doing enough, doing things the right way, seeing me often enough…How refreshing and soothing it was to be tended to by people who were able to approach me directly, without ideas about what they were doing for me… The two approaches produced a dramatically different impact on my energy level. …if you are suffering, the important relationships to you now are those that support the part of you that is vulnerable but struggling to deal realistically with a difficult situation… Now you need people who are ready to support the aspect of you that must face catastrophe with courage and truth.
Don’t be afraid that you appear too needy to such friends. When you settle into your true grief, you are not wearing on people in the way that people are before they face their suffering…you are encouraging and inspiring to your friends. This is not the stiff upper lip behavior of the denier; this is grief and tears and agony, but it’s real. This difference is palpable to those who wish to comfort you.
Darlene Cohen made me think of my experiences of helping and being helped and how confusing it all can seem. I recall my oncologist looking at me and saying, “Trudy this is not the time to be a stoic. I need you to ask for help, as soon as you need it. That is the best way for me to help you.”
Yet, as time went on, I found it hard to receive the help on offer. It was embarrassing. I wanted to continue to rise to every occasion and brush off the need for help. It still isn’t straight forward. Who wants to appear needy? This is a fear not just when we are ill but as we age.
Reading this book has been a nudge in two ways:
- Seeing how important it is to be authentic, honest, present and vulnerable when I am in need of help.
- When I offer help how important it is to be authentic, honest, present and vulnerable.
Not knowing is ok. Showing up wholeheartedly for whatever is going on is energizing even when it is exhausting. When I am the one helping I do not ever want it to be “a favour,” nor do I want to insist on “proper” expressions of appreciation. As a human these are slippery slopes. The gift of help needs to be a gift in order for it not to become one more transaction.
We can’t do it alone in life and there is no need to do so. I am convinced that the only reason we are here is to help and to be helped. This doesn’t imply that we can help everyone nor can everyone help us. But it does imply we do what we can with what we know, under our particular circumstances.
And even when we don’t get it right, in either capacity, we still have no reason to throw in the towel. Cohen’s book is a testament to the human spirit and a nudge to fully accept our capacity to keep on learning how to care for ourselves and each other.
We show up for each other, wholeheartedly, and we learn on the job by paying attention, as we live our lives.
Note: Sadly, Darlene Cohen died in 2011 from cancer. I have just recently heard of her and haven’t finished this book yet. Her devotion to people living with chronic illness and her four books are a significant part of her legacy. I am grateful to have this opportunity to meet her through her words.