February 1, 2013

First Do No Harm

Other people can do lots of things I can't do.  They can play the piano or compose a song.  They can climb a tree or run five miles.  They can build things or read a financial spreadsheet or start an IV or make a perfect pie crust.  I can't do any of those things.

There are some things I can do well.  Most of them, like baking a loaf of whole wheat bread, I learned after years of trying and lots of failure.  A few, like singing on pitch, came more naturally, but still required  practice.

There's one thing in particular I've always been good at.

For almost as long as I can remember, since I was no more than nine or ten years old, people have told me things.  I have been a magnet for people who want to talk.  They tell me about their problems.  They tell me about their pasts.  They tell me about what they believe and about who they are.  They tell me things they have never told anyone else.

I listen.

It is a sacred trust that was given to me before I ever had a chance to earn or deserve it.  I don't know how I knew how to do it.  More than that, I don't know how other people knew I'd listen.  But I do.

Even when people don't tell me with words, I find that I know things.  For a very long time I knew things without knowing I knew them and without thinking it was anything particularly special.  Then, for a little while, I realized I knew things and thought it was very special, and I was a little afraid of it.

I was right to be afraid.  It was like having a super-power I couldn't control.  The real danger was this:  Sometimes I really do know what I think I know, and sometimes I don't, and I can't always know the difference.  Sometimes what I think I know about you isn't about you at all. It's about me.  You are like a mirror, reflecting back to me my own face -- my prejudices or problems or judgments or fears.

But for a moment, I thought that what I felt or intuited must be true and must be about you and meant I had to do something.  I had to tell you.  I had to make you understand.  I had to understand, figure something out.  I had to act.

Who in the world did I think I was?

More than once in my life I have had the unsettling and deeply humbling experience of having a friend tell me to back off.  In those moments I was given the gift of a painful truth:  I had violated them.  I had entered into their sacred space uninvited.  These few had the courage and honesty to call me out.  How many others had just suffered my invasive "helping" and, out of kindness or indifference or hurt had never said a word?

Now I know that my knowing things is both special and not so special.  It's my job to protect what you tell me or what I perceive, to protect the gift, the stories and you.  It's not merely about protecting you by keeping a vow of confidentiality, keeping your stories to myself.  I have to protect you from me -- from my ego, from thinking I know what you need or how to fix what troubles you.  I don't.

And you don't need me to know.  The only person who knows what you need is you.  If I have any gift to give beyond compassionate listening -- which must be characterized by silent acceptance -- it is to remind you that you have all the answers within you, in your own soul.  The best I can do is to hold the mirror and allow you to see for yourself.

That's more than special enough.

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