“I see you”: Of witnessing and healing

I was listening to Papa Ostler’s podcast this morning, and he was having a beautiful conversation with Julie Lee, a mother and podcaster herself. Julie describes some really dark moments in her life related to mental illness, and hearing what that is like– it is a difficult cross to bear. I have had some lows in my life, but not what she describes here where she had some days where just to live another day was a conscious choice she had to make. To even try to comprehend that pain is difficult, and so you just have to be there and be a witness, what she calls “seeing” another, “I see you.”

There was one moment in the podcast that she describes that really moved me. She was explaining that on day, she was having a real low, and she felt that it was so bad that she shouldn’t be alone in the house, just her and her kids. So she called up her sister-in-law, briefly explained the situation, and came on over with the kids. Her in-laws didn’t have a lot of experience with mental illness, but they their response is spot-on. Julie describes it like this:

I showed up, and I remember seeing my sister-in-laws, and it’s uncomfortable, it’s uncomfortable sitting next to someone in that kind of suffering and pain, and I just remember, as I started to describe what I was feeling, I physically started to collapse, and it was almost like, they came from either side of me, and they just grabbed onto me and hugged me… it was beautiful, and I felt like that was the Savior, like that’s what he would do. And they physically stopped me from collapsing, because my emotional and mental pain was physically too much for me to even stand. But they grabbed me and held me from either side and they just held me and cried with me. Everybody can do that.

What really got me here was how this single moment in time transcends itself. To Julie, you can tell that this moment changed her life. It’s where two souls (in this case three) touch. In our busy lives, moments like this seem to be getting rarer. At least, I think that those who need these kinds of connections aren’t getting them. I think we all need to connect with other human beings in a deep way like this, but because it’s something kind of hard to describe, we may not even know we need it. But I’m sure that if we all took a moment, you could probably find an experience like the one Julie describes here.

I will try to describe on here. I served a mission in Frankfurt, Germany. As a missionary, I never reached a point where I felt that I was doing enough. I never had a full schedule of appointments– twenty being the golden number– and if you weren’t in an appointment, then you should be out in the streets contacting or doing doors. I could only do that for so many hours before I wouldn’t be able to put on a happy face anymore. I remember some days where I would wake up not knowing how I would get through the day: we had no appointments, it was bitter cold outside, and I just had no hope. I remember one day kneeling at the door with my companion to pray, and I broke down in tears.

I got through those days. But there was one thing that helped me. I got a new mission president who, before I really even got to know him, I knew that something had changed significantly. He didn’t just talk about goals and key indicators and street approaches and role plays. I just knew from him that he loved us, that he was trying to show that, and that the Lord loved us. I remember one day, we were wrapping up a meeting and the church, and I got a call from President Schwartz. He was in Essen– the city I was serving in at the time, and he wanted to stop by to talk. I was surprised– Essen was a long ways away from the mission home– but I told him we would be at the church for a little bit longer, if he wanted to stop by. We met up, and we just talked about our day, how we were doing together as a companionship, and if there was anything we were struggling with. I thought there had to be some reason he came by, but nope– it was just to check in with us and to make sure that we were doing OK. Perhaps he would laugh at it looking back how small it was to him– something he just did because that’s the kind of person he is. But to me, it meant everything to my young missionary self. To know that he would stop by just to talk. Through small acts like this, President Schwartz gave me a hope I hadn’t gotten before out there in the mission field, and it no longer had the same gloomy cast to it that it had previously.

President Schwartz was able to connect with me because we had a relationship we were both invested in. I’m sure he felt a stewardship to help all his missionaries feel loved, and to help them be their best selves in this moment in their lives. But there are other kinds of moments where we don’t need a pre-existing relationship to connect with another person. There was one moment recently where I was at the grocery store. I was at the register standing behind a guy who was just finishing ringing up. He used a gift card, but it came up short– about five dollars. He was searching his wallet, but couldn’t find anything, and was getting a little flustered like you do when you realize you’re holding up the line. I saw this poor guy struggling, and I know what that’s like because I’ve been there plenty of times myself. I happened to have a five on me, so I handed it to the cashier, indicating I would cover the rest. The man was surprised at the action. He nodded his appreciation, and gave a “thank you”– you could tell he wish that he could do more– but the line was long, and we had to keep it moving. It was just a small and passing moment, but I felt so grateful for that chance to connect with another human being. In situations like that, we feel like all eyes are on us, that people are judging us. When someone reaches out to help instead, it’s nice to feel like that there are people willing to reach out from the busy crowd of life to give a helping hand.

What stops us from having more moments like these three? Where we feel a deep connection to others, to God, or both? I wanted to write a few thought on this. First, I personally would be emotionally exhausted if I had to try to feel a deep connection like that all the time. There was a time in my life where I was literally trying to pray always. I would go about my day trying to keep God in my mind the whole time. But even if I was able to do it, I wasn’t able to feel a constant sense of connection. There is no way to guarantee that with God or with others all the time. Instead, you have to be on the lookout for those moments, those opportunities when they come throughout your otherwise ordinary day. I like the scripture where Christ tells Nicodemus:

The wind bloweth where it listeth, and thou hearest the sound thereof, but canst not tell whence it cometh or wither it goeth: so is every one that is born of the Spirit.

Sometimes people will come to us in need of help, and we need to be ready to respond without hesitation. Other times, we need to be the ones reaching out. Either way, it’s not something that will come on queue, and we need to follow the Spirit where it leads us.

I think that we are limited to some extent from full communion with God and with others just as a part of mortality. When Adam and Eve had to leave the Garden of Eden, God said, In the sweat of thy face shalt though eat bread, til thou return to the ground. Meaningful work is another element that you need for a fulfilled life. Something that you can get lost in, that you can look up and wonder where the last eight hours went. Something that you can be proud of at the end of the day, a year, ten years. But if you don’t have any transcendent moments in there somewhere, those days and years may lose their luster, and become interminable burdens.

I think another reason is perhaps a philosophical shift. I just finished reading a book by philosopher Charles Taylor where he describes what he called the buffered self which gained traction during the Enlightenment:

Here is the contrast between the modern, bounded self– I want to say “buffered” self– and the “porous” self of the earlier enchanted world. [It is] a very different existential condition. For the buffered self, the possibility exists of taking a distance from, disengaging from everything outside the mind. My ultimate purposes are those which arise within me, the crucial meanings of things are those defined in my responses to them…

As a bounded self I can see the boundary as a buffer, such that the things beyond me don’t need to “get to me”, to use the contemporary expression. That’s the sense to my use of the term “buffered” here. This self can see itself as invulnerable, as master of the meanings of things for it.

These two descriptions get at the two important facets of this contrast. First the porous self is vulnerable, to spirits, demons, cosmic forces [and I would include people and other people’s feelings, needs here too]. And along with this go certain fears which can grip it in certain circumstances. The buffered self has been taken out of the world of this kind of fear.

The second facet is that the buffered self can form the ambition of disengaging from whatever is beyond the boundary, and of giving its own autonomous order to its life. The absence of fear can be not just enjoyed, but seen as an opportunity for self-control or self-direction.

I really like this idea of the buffered self, because I think it captures some of the dynamics of what we’ve described above. If we aim to achieve a buffered self, we try to distance ourselves from things beyond our control in order to create order in our lives. This can be a very good and empowering thing. In fact, one of the most important things I learned on my mission was to not focus on the things I can’t control and focus on the things I can. But if during that process we effectively cut ourselves off from the lives of other people, we can no longer be rescued if things do get out of our control, or can no longer rescue those beyond our own mental boundary. We need to be able to go beyond ourselves, to touch another’s pain, if we want to help them. Otherwise other people will eventually just look like another burden to avoid.

Image credit: lds.org

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