He had called many times ahead of his arrival, wanting to know everything about the place where he was to reside while undergoing treatment for his cancer.
Today, he shows up in my office with a self-admitted anxiety. He is wearing a Hawaiian shirt. “It’s to remind me that it can maybe feel just like a vacation, though I don’t like to travel or be in new places,” he explains coyly.
I make four separate adjustments to the room setup to accommodate him and his wife’s needs. In between, he keeps finding his way back into my office, always prefaced with a timid apology.
“I’m sorry to bother you.” He goes on to ask another question pertaining to the practical matter of setting up his home away from home for the next two months. I address all questions meticulously. It’s important. He lingers.
“I’m sorry for being so anxious about this whole thing.”
I wait – there is more. “It’s just… I can’t stop crying.”
He explains how some of his friends are telling him to just suck it up.
“I don’t know how. There must be something wrong with me. Why can’t I get over it?
I can’t stop thinking, ‘Why me?'”
He didn’t sign up for this. None of us do.
He has Faith, he tells me – in a God that’s thankfully benevolent.
“I sense that you like to have control, maybe feel unsafe when you don’t have any,”
I begin to wonder out loud. “Yes, and I don’t want to feel that way!,” he adds emphatically.
“How long does it take to get over all of this? You’re a survivor!”
He is practically begging for a sign of relief.
“Maybe never,” I respond gently. “Could that be OK? Could you learn to trust in your God’s plan?” He contemplates for a moment. It’s not the first time he has had this question posed to him. His pastor asked him the same one, as I find out. Having Faith and practicing Faith, of any form, are not the same.
“I bought a journal,” he says, “to write some things down.”
I think he must be alluding to his feelings, so I suggest he write letters to his God, remembering how profoundly struck I had been by Julia Cameron’s Prayers from a Nonbeliever, in which she details her daily conversations with God, or whatever she thought others believed in.
He perks up. “That’s a great idea! I have just been writing down things I need to do.” I chuckle. We like to do that. Focus on the doing so we don’t have to deal with the feelings that arise when we are just being. Remembering the emotional backlog I sifted through for many years following cancer, I look at him and see myself then – apologetic, submissive, anxious, afraid to take up space, to ask for what I need.
“Feel what there is to feel. And whatever it may be, let it be OK.,”
I offer and he thanks me. I want to tell him that he has nothing to be afraid of, that he is worthy of love and care, that this too shall pass, but I fear I would be of disservice. There is no bypassing the hard stuff. He must feel it to heal it like the rest of us, though tempted as we may be to think our way out of feelings.
In his following visits, he shares how he is good at giving, but feels uncomfortable receiving help. He tells me how when his phone dings, he instantly feels a ping of fear: What did I do wrong now? He feels like whatever he does is never enough. None of this feels right to him. We contemplate the nature of our thoughts, the voices in our head. “It’s mostly just learned behaviour,” we agree.
“How long does it take to undo all of these things? Does it ever end?” Again, a desperate attempt at controlling the outcome, timing, and nature of all things – trying to fix what is.
“Maybe never,” I hear myself say once more. “Could that also be OK?” It’s hard, we nod in sync. And that too is OK! “Maybe you can tell God about how hard you are finding it in one of your letters.”
Normally, I would have dived into each of his wounds, pulled out the sour sap, and presented it to him to look at. Here – this is the shit that needs to be fixed for you to heal! But I had no desire to fix him. There was nothing to fix! He was already whole as he was. All our conversations were just reminders for us both that there is nothing to do. That we are enough as we are.
Many of the conversations we have about healing nowadays seem to assume that we are somehow broken, that our wounds are hindrances, and that our fears are obstacles. So harsh we are with ourselves!
“My thoughts, the voices I hear inside my head – they aren’t mine,” he reflects. “How we talk to ourselves is mostly informed by how we’ve been talked to,” I reflect on my own experience. It doesn’t make the feelings they invoke any less real in the moment, though, we note.
“Sometimes, I don’t really know who I am,” he shares towards the end of our last conversation. It feels like a last attempt by the ego to fight for its place in this conversation. You’re nothing without me!
“Maybe that’s not such a bad thing. Maybe you can just allow yourself to be as you are, not as you think you need to be.”
He tells me that there are many things that he doesn’t like about himself. “Could that also be OK?,” I ask once more. “Could you just be with that feeling when it arises and let it be OK?” He has just discovered Yoga, he informs me. It’s been helpful in making him more mindful about his thoughts and feelings.
“I love Yoga too,” I relate. “Though I had to learn that it’s not just another tool to fix myself.” It was really never about that, but it sure got me to bring my ass back to the mat over and over again.
We circle back to God. “Maybe this experience is here to help me remember who I am.” It’s true. It could very well be that way, but who really knows. Why not leave a little room for magic and for the mystery to tell its own story?
“Even if it’s not, the worst that can happen is you get to know parts of yourself you hadn’t known, maybe even make friends with parts you’ve previously shunned. And maybe in all of that, you will feel closer to your God than you have ever before. There are so many things that could unfold from here, none of which require you to DO anything.”
He doesn’t walk out of my office with inner homework, tips on how to get to the bottom of his pain, or encouragements to dive deep into his discomfort; just a reminder that he is enough. That he doesn’t need to be fixed. That he is not broken. And what whatever he happens to discover about himself, no matter how ugly, is worthy of his love and attention.
His eyes gloss over.
“Sometimes it is necessary to reteach a thing its loveliness,”
said poet Galway Kinnell.
Perhaps the only thing, I ponder,
as we part.