Holding the Space for Our Suffering to Heal Us

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Hello again, dear friends.  Peace, love, and joy be with you on this, the autumnal equinox.

This post marks the conclusion of the Healing Through Connection Summer Series, 2016:  Holding the Space.  The story I will tell is important to me, and I love that it’s the series finale.  I wish I had posted on the last day of summer, but the first day of fall is okay, too.  Two days ago I was privileged to witness a whole lot of people, hold a whole lot of space, for a whole lot of suffering.  And I posit that we all came away better for it.  I invite you to sit back, get comfy, and take your time with this one.  I’m feeling particularly fulfilled as I sit to write, and I hope to convey the deep gladness I gained from the experience.

***

It was day three of the International Conference on Physician Health, in Boston.  I had anticipated this meeting giddily for nine months.  From the moment I heard the call for abstracts, through the iterative preparatory steps, to the final emails, texts, PowerPoints, and conference calls with collaborators, through the personal connections and learning, I was now positively beside myself with zeal.  It was everything I had hoped and more.  I was surrounded by colleagues from three continents, all gathered to share and unite around making our professional world more humane.  We explored ideas like awe, joy, mindfulness, empathy, presence, and vulnerability.  I had lived two glorious days in a cocoon of safety, love, and resonance.  I was among my people.

This day’s workshop focused on compassion, and aimed to tap its deepest reaches within each attendee.  The presenter prepared us for the exercise by describing his work with previous groups—CEOs breaking open in anger, shame, forgiveness, and finally compassion.  He asked that we hold the gravity of vulnerability with reverence and respect.  We understood the solemnness asked of us, and responded in kind.  This was the exercise:

On a blank 5×7 index card, write a personal story.  You will have five minutes.  The cards will be collected at your table, redistributed, and shared anonymously at another table.  Be aware that your writing may be shared aloud with the whole group, later in the exercise.  Instruction:  Write the story of a time in the past year that was really hard for you, when you suffered.  It could be personal or professional.

For a split second I felt a catching in my chest—‘Yikes!’  And in the next breath, ‘Bring it.’  I knew this tribe.  They would hold it for me, with me, no question.  And because I was also a tribe member, I would do it for them.  I looked forward to it, actually.  I wrote with surprisingly little effort, concisely yet in detail, about a particularly challenging relationship and my struggles with perfectionism.  How could my other relationships shine so brightly, feel so easy, and flow so freely, while this one so regularly caused me angst and turmoil?

At the end of five minutes my tablemates and I placed our cards in an envelope provided.  I felt oddly relieved, as though a great weight I carried all this year had been lifted.  The envelope was marked, then passed three or four times between tables, so we didn’t know where our cards ended up.  They were as letters in a corked bottle, cast into the ocean, released to an uncertain, but hopeful, fate.

Our presenter explained that at this time, the envelopes would normally be opened, and each of us would take one card and read it.  We were to hold it and its anonymous author in the space of compassion, then share with our tablemates.  We would help one another hold one another.  Then, if so moved, each table would choose one card to share with the larger group.  Our task was to connect, with ourselves and one another, to feel deeply now, to remind us how to do it out in the world.  This was where it would get real, we all knew.   And though he had warned us earlier about an unforeseen shortening of the workshop schedule, we did not see the abrupt end of the exercise coming.  He told us we would not have enough time to do the exercise justice, and so the envelopes would remain unopened this day.  He acknowledged the conflict we all felt, the urge to look.  But he stood firm that experiences like this cannot be rushed, and he respected the time constraints of the meeting.

The tension in the room was palpable, even as we all sat in silence.  It felt jarring, painful, anxious.  What would happen to the cards?  What about all that suffering contained in them, people’s hearts and lives scribed with intention to be seen, known, understood, and held?  Surely they would not just be thrown in the trash?  One colleague voiced so poignantly our core conflict:  We all wanted closure for this vulnerable exercise, and that need competed with honor for the time required to complete it.  Our leader gracefully acknowledged this truth, and solemnly held the space for us all to be present to its discomfort.

For a moment we felt stuck, we connection seekers.  I looked at our leader.  His expression conveyed nothing but humility and empathy.  His posture conveyed resolution.  Despite our deep longing, he refused to lead us into treacherously thorny fields, because he knew he did not have the time to bring us safely through to the other side.  But he also allowed us to process, invited us to consider how else we could collectively resolve our unease.

I wondered what would physically become of the cards.  Would he take them home with him?  Would he burn them in a reverent ceremony of sorts?  I knew he felt responsible for us and our predicament.  Would he read each one, hold each of us and all of our suffering, all by himself?  I felt immediate compassion for him, and hoped that he would not take that route; none of us would want that for him.

I wanted to suggest that we be given the option of each pulling one card, to hold in compassion privately, as we left the workshop.   But we were spread out in a big room, feeling separated from one another rather than connected, and I felt sheepish.

Within a minute or so we had decided to collect the envelopes together, stand surrounding them as if around an altar, and offer a benediction of sorts.  I could not shake the urge to reach out, to take one person’s suffering and hold it for them, love them, send energy of compassion and solidarity to them, whoever they may be.  I realized also that this was exactly what I wanted for my card, for my suffering.  And now that we stood shoulder to shoulder, at least physically if not emotionally proximal, I felt more comfortable to speak.  “I really want for someone to take my card and hold it for me, and I really want to do that for someone.”  Another attendee immediately looked me in the eye and said, “I’ll do it.”  The group consented; each of us would take a card at random, if we wanted.  I pulled one from the third envelope from the top of the pile.  I held it to my chest and returned to my seat.  I forgot all about my own card, and my anxiety evaporated.  I no longer cared if anyone saw mine; I had released it.  My task was to hold my colleague’s sorrow with my own heart, and wish with my whole being for their peace and healing.

I’m so proud of all of us.  We attended to so many needs that morning, all with respect and kindness.  The presenter set the tone for the workshop from the beginning and we all understood the learning objectives: Practice opening up to let the healing in and practice the inner work of holding another’s suffering with your own.  Connect with our shared humanity.  We all learned an important lesson in flexibility, creativity, collaboration, and acceptance.  We held space like champions.

I’m proud of myself for finally speaking up, for asking for what I needed.  That I was met with such generosity and tenderness speaks to the remarkable power of mutual understanding and compassion.  I took a deep breath and read the card in my hands.  My colleague’s story was short, about the 5 year anniversary of his/her father’s death, and memories of loss and helplessness.  Tears came when I read it.  I hugged the card and said a prayer for its writer.  I’ll keep the card someplace safe, and eventually release it in some respectful, peaceful way.

I don’t know if anyone pulled my card.  It’s okay.  Just the hope that someone might have seen it and given it some consideration is enough.  I learned the lesson I needed: Offering my pain for someone else to hold a while, and accepting another’s sorrow to hold for them, constitutes the cycle of healing.  We are not here to go it alone.  We need one another in the best ways.

17 thoughts on “Holding the Space for Our Suffering to Heal Us

  1. Oh, what a beautiful lesson and experience Catherine! The timing of your sharing it, perfection, this first day of Nature’s season of letting go. Thank you for inspiring and reminding me to make space for others by letting go pieces of myself. ❤️

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  2. Oh what a wonderful experience you shared Catherine! Thank you for sharing it. I am so glad you were able to attend the conference and that it had such meaning for you. I hope to be at the next physician health conference and to meet you!

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  3. This is beautiful, Catherine—a wonderful story of the strength and caring we can hold for one another, and also beautifully written. It sounds like a tremendous conference and a fabulous experience to share with like-minded colleagues. It’s inspiring to think that so many physicians who share your values and integrity are returning to their homes to continue the conversation with their colleagues, families, and patients. Thanks for sharing. And thanks for a wonderfully-themed summer blog series. What’s next?

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      • Thanks for sharing this article, Catherine. Clearly, there’s no easy answer. Until we make some major changes to the overall healthcare system and the demands that are being placed on physicians, it’s unlikely that empathy will become a widespread driver. Physicians want it; patients certainly want it, but the system and the bureaucracy governing medicine create barriers that don’t merely get in the way, but are even sometimes a disincentive to compassionate care. Glad to know there are smart people working on changing things….

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  4. You are such an incredible role model for all caretakers Catherine. Especially physicians. You give us hope and faith in the heartfelt healing of genuine compassion. Your sharing of yourself translates as caring (in so many ways). Thank you. Your writing encourages me to be me. Full buoyant wide open heart & all. Thank you for sharing & holding your sacred space.💫💛💫

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  5. Sorry I somehow missed this post last month. Glad I took a peek today at your blog, Cathy. I was well rewarded. “Offering my pain for someone else to hold a while, and accepting another’s sorrow to hold for them, constitutes the cycle of healing. We are not here to go it alone. We need one another in the best ways.” I love that.

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