What can I do when someone I love hurts? To be honest, my knee-jerk reaction is to try to fix them. Good grief, I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had my ass handed back to me for doing that. My kids are the best example. When one of my kids is hurting I want to “do something”. That’s my first reaction. That first reaction is inevitably from my ego.
“Why do you say that?” you may wonder. I’ll tell you why. Because when I am moving from the urge to fix somebody I care about it is because I can’t tolerate the anxiety of watching them feel what they are feeling or learning from their own experience. My kids just hate it when I come at them that way. I was once so bad about it they developed the tactic of prefacing their words to me with, “Dad, I don’t want you to do anything about this, I just want you to listen.”
I don’t mean I ignore them when they are in physical distress or they have a problem in the world of form that I can assist them with. If they need me to do something to make their lives easier I am happy to do that most of the time. But when their hearts hurt, oh boy, I want to rescue them. Many years ago my daughter fell in love with a man who was in the process of divorcing. She wanted to talk to me about the situation. She quit trying after getting nothing but advice from me. She didn’t want advice, she wanted to express herself and hear her own words give her their answers. When my son was in his third year of college he wrecked his car. He was broke. So was I. He wanted to talk to me about what his options were. I gave him advice. Thank God he didn’t take it. Instead, he went to his mother where he knew someone would listen to him without judging what he was saying. He made the right decision about his education and his future when he could hear himself say what he was feeling at the deepest level of his heart. No advice was necessary.
My kids are grown with their own children now. They are neat people. I don’t say that with any sense of pride. What I mean is they turned out to be neat people in spite of me being their father. I like them. They are good company. They tell the truth and they love a lot. Their lives are fine. If something comes up now, I have learned that my job is to listen. What an honor that is. If my daughter tells me something that is really hammering her heart I feel so blessed. I don’t have to do anything but hear and respect what she is feeling. My son lives in another state. I’m pleased to say he calls me often. His calls are more frequent when he’s working through some dilemma. Usually it has to do with his relationship with his wife, one of his three daughters, his boss, or God. I feel so trusted to be on the inside of his head as he works his way through whatever perplexes him. Hell, I never have any answers. Once in a great while I might risk offering a suggestion, but the majority of the time I just listen and tell him what I think I’m hearing. His middle girl was bitching at him for bitching at her about her performance on her softball team. He is her father and her coach. She had yelled, “Dad, I can’t carry the whole team and I feel awful when you get on to me about how I’m playing like I’m the only one on the team!” We talked, my son and I, for quite a while when it occurred to me to suggest he had the choice of teaching her she was guilty or innocent. He seemed relieved to hear that and sounded like he suddenly felt real clear about what he wanted to do. That kind of thing is the exception. I got lucky.
When my wife wants to talk to me nine times out of ten it’s about something she feels and all she wants is my ear and my heart. She doesn’t want my thoughts about what she should or shouldn’t do. She isn’t quite as delicate with me as my children were when I start giving advice. She just tells me to shut the hell up and listen.
I’m improving in this area. I’m noticing more and more that all I want when I’m in distress is to be heard. I don’t want whomever I’m talking to figure out my problems. I want them to listen. They are welcome to tell me what they feel or what I sound like I’m dealing with. Maybe I don’t really have a handle on what I’m feeling. My wife and my close friends are really astute as hearing things in my words I can’t quite hear myself. Then, once I get a handle on what I’m feeling, I will know what to do.
Last Tuesday my youngest granddaughter was messing around with my dog. She was opening the sliding glass doors to the porch. She lost her balance and all her weight went into pulling on the door. It slammed open. I could just imagine glass breaking and blood spurting from the kid. My heart jumped into my throat and I yelled, “Jesus Christ, kid, don’t do that!”
Her chin hit her chest and she started softly crying. I was the source of her hurt. I immediately started trying to fix what she felt. Sandy interrupted me. “Let her feel what she feels,” Sandy said. “She’ll figure out what to do.” I shut up.
Within a few minutes the kid said, “Papa, you scared me when you yelled at me.” Then she stomped into the bathroom and shut the door. I felt like the proverbial shit sandwich but I held my tongue. After a decent interval I went in to her and found her sitting on the toilet with her head in her hands. I said, “You know what? I was scared, too. When I thought you were going to be hurt I was feeling scared. Can you hear that?” Beneath the cascade of blond hair her head nodded a little.
I asked, “Are we buddies again?”
She was clear when she said, “No way.”
Thirty minutes later I was helping her change into her dance class clothes. That’s when we made up. I did not need to fix her. She needed acceptance. When I gave acceptance to her we quickly ended up back in the warmth where we had begun.
Having relationships with people requires that I grow up. No one I love wants me to fix their lives or change their feelings. They want what I want. They want me to hear them, just like I want to be heard. This is where I have to have some faith in the mystery of life. This is when I need to trust the life that lives in the people I love to give them their own answers. This simple acceptance, this quiet listening, this willingness to allow my heart to resonate to the same rhythm of the person speaking to me, this is a miracle I am capable of offering. I’m a long way from perfect but there are signs I’m improving.
Alan J. Brooks