Jesus says, “What do you want me to do for you?” (Mark 10:51)
My misgivings about advice began with my first experience of clinical depression thirty-five years ago. The people who tried to support me had good intentions. But, for the most part, what they did left me feeling more depressed.
Some went for the nature cure: “Why don’t you get outside and enjoy the sunshine and fresh air? Everything is blooming and it’s such a beautiful day!” When you’re depressed, you know intellectually that it’s beautiful out there. But you can’t feel a bit of that beauty because your feelings are dead — and being reminded of that gap is depressing.
Other would-be helpers tried to spruce up my self-image: “Why so down on yourself? You’ve helped so many people.” But when you’re depressed, the only voice you can hear is one that tells you that you’re a worthless fraud. Those compliments deepened my depression by making me feel that I’d defrauded yet another person: “If he knew what a worm I am, he’d never speak to me again.”
Here’s the deal. The human soul doesn’t want to be advised or fixed or saved. It simply wants to be witnessed — to be seen, heard and companioned exactly as it is. When we make that kind of deep bow to the soul of a suffering person, our respect reinforces the soul’s healing resources, the only resources that can help the sufferer make it through.
Aye, there’s the rub. Many of us “helper” types are as much or more concerned with being seen as good helpers as we are with serving the soul-deep needs of the person who needs help. Witnessing and companioning take time and patience, which we often lack — especially when we’re in the presence of suffering so painful we can barely stand to be there, as if we were in danger of catching a contagious disease. We want to apply our “fix,” then cut and run, figuring we’ve done the best we can to “save” the other person.
During my depression, there was one friend who truly helped. With my permission, Bill came to my house every day around 4:00 PM, sat me down in an easy chair, and massaged my feet. He rarely said a word. But somehow he found the one place in my body where I could feel a sense of connection with another person, relieving my awful sense of isolation while bearing silent witness to my condition.
By offering me this quiet companionship for a couple of months, day in and day out, Bill helped save my life. Unafraid to accompany me in my suffering, he made me less afraid of myself. He was present — simply and fully present — in the same way one needs to be at the bedside of a dying person.
It’s at such a bedside where we finally learn that we have no “fix” or “save” to offer those who suffer deeply. And yet, we have something better: our gift of self in the form of personal presence and attention, the kind that invites the other’s soul to show up. Ω
Reflect: When have you experienced the gift of personal presence? What virtues are required to offer it? What fruit may be received through it?
What is this? Lent is the 40 days, excluding Sundays, before Easter. Traditionally it is a time of reflection and pilgrimage. To help you on this journey, Sanctuary has put together 40 stories from people both within and beyond the congregation, with associated questions for reflection and prayer. A reading will be uploaded every day of Lent. This year’s theme is Fruit of the Spirit. Why? Read this. #Lent2022. Real People, Real Stories: 40 Readings for Lent © Sanctuary, 2022. From Parker J. Palmer. “The Gift of Presence, the Perils of Advice.” The On Being Project. 27 April 2016. https://onbeing.org/blog/the-gift-of-presence-the-perils-of-advice/. Access date: 7 January 2019.
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