Listening to the Painful Truth
“Truthfulness is the foundation of all virtues.” Baha’u’llah
So here I am at the end of the semester teaching my young children some balls skills in the gym. They are full of excitement about each basket they make and every game they play especially dodgeball. When there is a break between classes, I do the 21st century thing. I check my cell phone for messages. Why do we all do this? I guess that is for another posting some time. To my astonishment the message I am reading is not the one I get everyday. It is from a person who wants to end her life, who has lost all hope. She says she is going to do it tomorrow, but because of her children decides first to text me.
I have to say that when I am reading this message, I am already exhausted from the semester. It is the last day of school and this is the last thing I want to receive. Why me? The first thing that goes through my mind is that while she is in a state of hopelessness, she has decided to put off the suicide until tomorrow. This means she is reaching out and it also means she has some hope despite it not being apparent to her. I have worked with a person who called me while he was in the process of taking a huge number of pills and drinking a lot of alcohol to kill himself before so I know the first rule in these cases is to take the person seriously. In that case I was not sure if the person was actually telling me the truth, but after a few minutes I could hear the way his voice was changing. He told me that he called because I was a great friend and big support to him, that he wanted to thank me for what I had done for him. We managed somehow to get the fire department to his house without him knowing it to save him, but he was pretty upset with me for a long time. His life was just a big mess.
On this day I am calling my wife, Debby, forwarding her the message, and asking her to see if she can go to woman’s apartment and do something. She cannot reach her by phone, so she goes to her apartment knocks on her door and spends an hour or two with her. By the time she finishes, they are on their way to the psychiatrist. Later, the woman will say that she could not believe it that Debby just showed up at her door. It was more than she could ever hope for.
The psychiatrist is brief, barely listens to the story and then gives something to help the woman sleep. This is a true story so the behavior of the psychiatrist is pretty shocking. Debby tells her to come stay with us for a couple of days. My tired, exhausted body wants to not deal with this, but I put it aside for the time being so that my mind and spirit can do their work.
After a couple of hours of sleep, she comes to the dinner table with us. How do you start a conversation with someone who is at the end of her rope? I mean most of us have been to the end of our ropes, but not enough to end our lives. I am thinking that well maybe she will just go to sleep and we will start the healing processes tomorrow. I am not sure if that was my tired body speaking. It certainly was not my soul. A minute later I am making some introductory questions and then for the next few hours we are fully into process. I think that I am officially on my holiday from school, but God has another agenda for me and her.
The key for me in helping someone like this is the movement from depression and hopelessness to a life full of hope. Hope is a future capability. With hope you see the future as bright and wonderful and do everything you can to move toward it. When you don’t have hope, your future is usually dark and full of negative possibilities. Most people feel all alone.
To get to being hopeful and enthused about her life I start with the darkness and loneliness. It seems to me as I am working with her, that being able to sit and listen to someone’s negative truth without your own ego interfering is a great gift you can give someone. They have pain. They are all alone and most of their life is spent hiding it. I am listening to her because I want to find out what her truly positive life is all about, but I can only get there when I allow her to speak her truth, her pain.
The pain is the thing. Most people do not want to hear the pain of others, but as I listen to her loneliness, it gives me a lot of clues as to where her life might be wanting to take her.
One of my colleagues lost one of her siblings this year. It has been an extremely agonizing experience for her because really they were best of friends. At a staff meeting the other day, while we were eating Christmas treats, I ask her how its going with the loss of her sister. We talk for several minutes with other colleagues joining in. It is such a simple question, but the pressure of daily life especially in a school makes this kind of conversation rarer than it ought to be. The next day she approaches me and thanks me several times for the conversation because in some small way it has allowed her to move forward.
We all have pain. It is part of life. I have been fired from the last three jobs I have had when I thought I was doing my very best work. Someone else thought I wasn’t. Its funny because when I tell some people, they feel uncomfortable about it and want to change the conversation, but it is where most of my pain has come in the last decade. Without the pain, I would have no hope.
It reminds me when I am talking to the woman who wants to end her life, that there were people who wanted to end my life as I knew it and did. One day I was in a country and the next day I was gone. The pain is great when someone takes the life you know away from you. But as the saying goes, hope springs eternal. On a different day I have a new life in a new country full of wonder and joy, but especially a lot of hope.