Friday, June 13, 2014

The Kindness Epiphany

It was a painful kind of day, Thursday.

The day had not started painfully. The day had started beautifully, full of hope that smelled of iris and honeysuckle; ripe with love that was full and soft and sweet as mango picked from the tree at its peak. I opened my heart to another and with hands outstretched, offered myself to them. I felt no fear. Only certainty that the step I was taking was right and good and lovely.

I did not receive a response. But then, I did not need one. I had offered myself freely and completely as a gift. No strings attached. Should that gift be rejected, I knew there would be a sting, but I was also fully confident that such pain would be survivable and I would be better for having risked the gift of love in the first place.

Then, I went to the place of interruption. At first it was okay. I knew I would be okay and I was still brimming with the joy of having stepped beyond my self-imposed fortress and invited another to see me.

But then, in a small, cold room, full of other people, I was confronted with the memory of that interruption of death into life which had so disabled me for so long. I was confronted with the interruption that had kept me from talking about the interruption. And it was in my chair.

A place of comfort and continuity and safety in a situation so full of people that the anxiety of not being able to attend to the presence of all at once could only be mitigated by that seat in the room so that I could focus on each speaker directly and still hold  the whole in my periphery -- as much for my own comfort in not being startled by sudden movement or noise from behind and to have a clear view of egress, as by my desire to attend to those who might want to speak but may not have been seen by anyone else.

My chest began to constrict painfully with anxiety. Because I was not able to mitigate it by taking a place of security that would allow me to pay attention to what was being said, I stood apart. It seemed there was no safe room for me in the circle. I thought briefly of asking to have my need for this space honored, but quickly rejected it, as a previous attempt at engagement about the chair had ended in derision and previous engagement with the particular individual now occupying the only safe place in the room had ended in a verbal attack so violent, I defended myself vociferously for fear I would be swallowed whole by the feelings of shame that erupted when confronted by the dichotomy of being asked for vulnerability and being verbally run over and diverted in every instance in which I chose to say those alien words that strike fear so deeply in my heart my throat closes off and I can scarcely breathe: I need....

Twenty minutes and report was delivered and we were free for 15 minutes until the start of the next activity which would be safer. I retreated to a quiet space and reminded myself that what felt like an attack was not; what felt like an intentional denial of my safety was not. I tried. But my muscles had started to ache and my joints were getting stiff. Pressure was building in my eyes.

And then the questions. Ten people all asking. Yet, whenever I would answer, they didn't seem to hear; when I would try to clarify, someone else would begin speaking and I would be shushed for interrupting their interruption. Falling silent, I would wait until they would finish so that I could go back and say, "I need you to understand, that's just the presenting symptom. I want you to see and know the source that underneath it all it's really about this and I've been trying and trying and trying for weeks to tell you this most important part of who I am and I'm trying and trying and trying to trust you with the single most sacred thing in the world to me because it's here, in this time and place that that sacred experience and the loss of it is making it impossible for me to connect because it's bigger than I expected and I didn't know if you were safe, but I was told you were and I'm trying! I'm trying so hard to trust you with this so that you might see me and then judge me or not, but if you do you'll at least be judging me for who I am, not for who you think I am, and if you don't judge me, if you just accept me, then I'll know that I'm safe and I belong, if you would just let me explain."

But by the time the other person had finished talking, another jumped in, and then before I could clarify, I was asked another question and I tried to hold it all together, but now my anxiety is so high that my fingers are aching so badly I can barely think of anything but the sensation of pins stabbing through my knuckles and the fire in my fingertips and I can't look to the person on my right as they ask their next question and still see the person on my left because I had chosen to edge a few inches out of that safe space because I really do trust you even if you don't see it, and now I'm trapped and I can't retreat and the questions just keep coming and there are so many voices in the room I can't begin to understand how I can possibly answer whatever the question was while other people try to explain the dynamics and I am told, "But what's important isn't what anyone else said or did. What's important is that you understand why you responded that way."

"I know exactly why I responded that way," I say. I've been trying to tell you for four weeks and no one will listen or let me find the words, in the moment, to clarify and then the moment is gone and there isn't a chance to go back and I'm being attacked with these questions that won't let me go back and now I feel like an electric current is running through my whole body just under my skin and it hurts and  the back of my throat is closed so tightly I can't swallow and I can barely breathe and I want to throw up because my stomach is roiling and I can hear the blood rushing in my ears and my brain feels like all of the electricity running beneath my skin is ending there and it's building until I can feel everything in me begin to short-circuit.

"Can you tell me why then?" a gentle voice asks me. And I know somewhere in the recesses of my mind that this voice is one that will hear, but I feel like a wounded animal, caged and beaten and desperate to be left alone to heal and recover.

"None of your business," I say with cold finality. And then silence. And I know that it's bad. I know that I've thrown away my chance to be understood. That gentle voice looks taken aback, surprised that I would pull so violently away at this moment. I've been trying for weeks to tell you this most important part of what this experience is for me and no one has listened. Everyone has spent an hour in an all out assault against me, nine to one, and now, now that I am at the end of everything, you ask me to open my heart that I've desperately been trying to show you for a month. You ask for the vulnerability everyone has actively rejected at every turn.

Beaten, broken, bleeding, I can't process the gentleness in that voice. All I know is that I am alone in this place where no one has been willing to know me; I am beaten and terrified and will do anything to protect myself; and opening my heart one more time hoping again that this time you might understand is not possible.

In that moment, I do not hear the gentleness as an earnest desire to understand. I hear it as a call to submission before you deal the fatal blow. "Tell me so that I can finally destroy you entirely."

"None of your business."


I am wrong.

I have to make this right.

But there isn't time.

And there are more voices and we're being ushered out, and I hope, I fervently hope, maybe next time I can make it right. I can go back and explain. I can tell you that I know you asked for all the right reasons and I missed it and I want to tell you so that you'll know because I want you to know, because even if you don't accept it, it's important for me to say it to you so that I will know that I have taken the risk and offered myself and regardless of the outcome, I know there is joy in the offering. I want you to know the joy of knowing who I am and I want the joy of knowing you. I want to start over. I want to begin again and I want to tell you, "THIS (the relationship, the life that was interrupted by death that left me incapacitated) is what I hold most dear in life and you deserve to know this, because we are all going to be living with this sacred experience in the next seven weeks and it's going to be here and you are going to feel it and you have a right to know what it is."

Shortly thereafter I learn there will be no next time.

Maybe with the intense trauma response I've been living with for the past four weeks it's better. I know that it's physically and emotionally safer than continuing without change. But I wanted the chance to make that change.

I want the chance, now that you've finally asked me, to tell you that this is a very painful but very welcome interruption. I want the chance to tell you that I don't know how to be in this space of welcome pain because I've spent my whole life trying to mitigate pain. I want to ask you, "Will you walk alongside me in that as we journey in this place together?" I want to tell you, "Wherever you're at in your journey, I'm willing to walk with you, too!"

But there will not be a next time.

After it all, I went to a movie. I entered the theater through a side door and saw kiosks in the lobby. They only take cards. I wanted to pay with cash.

I approach the customer service counter and ask the woman behind the counter where I can get a ticket. "We've got the kiosks right there," she said with a smile and a gesture.

"Oh, no. I mean, I wanted to pay cash. If possible. I have a card. I can certainly use it, I was just hoping...." I feel flustered and unsure.

"Cash payments can be done outside," she tells me.

"Oh. I'm so sorry. I didn't mean to bother you," I tell her, realizing that once again I'd made a mistake. "I didn't realize... I'm not from here and the set up is different...." I want her to understand that I tried. I really did try. I just didn't understand.

"I'm not really supposed to," she says, picking up on my distress, "but I'll let you pay here just this once. Since you didn't know. In the future, though, just remember cash outside, cards in."

"No, really, it's okay," I tell her, beginning to cry at having inconvenienced her and overwhelmed by her willingness to break the rules for me. "I'll just go outside to pay." I turn to leave the desk.

"No. I'd really like to. It's okay. I just know that not everyone would, and I wouldn't want you to be turned away again."

Tears are streaming down my cheeks now, and the delicate skin just beneath my eyes begins to sting as the saltwater hits the microscopic tears that the abundance of tissues used earlier in the day have left. "I'm so sorry," I sob to her. "I don't mean to cry. You haven't done anything wrong. I'm just having a really hard day."

"Oh, honey," she says, "I don't know what's going on, but I do know for sure it'll get better. Eventually, it always does. And I'd like to help you have a better day. I really want you to go to the movie as my guest. No charge."

"I can't...I don't...It's too much...Thank you," I say as she hands me the ticket.

"I'll say a prayer for you," she tells me, a sure sign of where I am in the country. "Theater 16, just to the right. It'll be just a few minutes until they start seating."

As I walk away, humbled by this unexpected generosity, feeling worse that I've so inconvenienced someone with my tears that they felt the need to care for me in the only way they could, I heard Jesus, clear as a bell, ask me, "Do you really believe that you are so undeserving of kindness?"

I begin to sob in earnest now and make a hasty beeline for the family restroom where I can keen and wail with the pain of this softly spoken truth. Perhaps if I were to believe that I do deserve kindness, from myself and from others, then I could accept invitations to know and be known as the gifts they are and not reject them as fiery arrows of attack from an unknown entity.

Now I know. I know that it is my own deep sense of unworthiness that has kept me from being able to declare, "Here I am, world! I trust you to treat me kindly, because we all deserve a bit of kindness, including me! But if there's a misunderstanding, it's okay, because I trust it isn't intentional and just maybe if I'm willing and you're willing we can figure it out together. But if we can't, it'll still be okay, because I know who I am, and that is enough."

I want to go back. But it simply isn't possible. All of the unspoken words that have filled me up for the past four weeks are spilling out of my fingertips with no one left to witness.

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