Thursday, September 3, 2009

The kindness of strangers

A short appreciation today for some women I barely know: we do not hang out together, have coffee, share meals; we know only smatterings of one another’s lives. But we talk, daily—or as close to daily as we can—one on one, for seven minutes each. Well, “talk”: one of us talks, the other listens, with a few words of appreciation at the end for the very real person who is laying her life out there, with openness, vulnerability, courage, and trust. To a stranger. We are not confessing. Rather, we are plumbing our depths, of feelings about ourselves and others, what we call our “inherent nature,” and gauging our struggles—where we stumble, and what the next step is once we pick ourselves up. Our struggles may be as small as convincing our partner of the importance of moving dishes from the sink to the dishwasher, or as big as starting the process of divorce. On the listener’s part, there is no judgment, no advice given (though it sometimes sneaks in craftily, because that is what women are in a way trained to do: “help” and “fix”). We are loving witnesses, committed allies; we are also fellow travelers, aware that we are all bound together in the same “stuff” that is this life.

The context for these intimate talks is a group that I joined last spring, that took a hiatus over the summer, and that has been set in motion again the last few weeks. Being a shy sort, one who doesn’t speak freely about feelings, I have found the group challenging, to say the least. But I go, and I try to open my heart to the process—and, more to the point, to the love and acceptance in that room. And curiously enough, that love and acceptance from strangers (though of course, we aren’t really strangers, not anymore) manages to wriggle its way into my own heart, and as a result I have found myself to be more self-loving and self-accepting, more appreciative of my own company.

I was trying to tell a friend about this the other night, and he clearly didn’t get it. Some people I wouldn’t even try to explain it to. (This particular friend I consider an intimate, though I’m reaching the conclusion that that’s just wishful thinking.) There are so many levels of consciousness and awareness. While some people in my life seem well along on this path, I feel very much as if I am toeing my way through the dark, groping for a wall of solidity here (call it understanding), a handhold there (honesty), a roughness underfoot that signals an even set of steps (spiritual strength), a shaft of guiding light (joy). The path itself may be called healing, reintegration, compassion, love. All these abstract qualities, I am taught, are ones that we all embody (though I still have my doubts about serial killers and their ilk); they are qualities that make us, as our mantra goes, precious, enough, and full of worth, qualities that we can, and should, celebrate in ourselves and others.

Anyway, I wanted today simply to appreciate the lovingkindness I am experiencing with these women, and from each of them individually. We are all learning to listen, to feel fully, and to reclaim our wholeness. It’s invigorating, if at times terrifying. But if we didn’t experience the darkness, we would never be able to see the light.

Since I’m trying to include a relevant quote for each posting, here is one from Dennis Elwell (who champions “rational astrology,” apparently) that, although about the universe writ large, captures some of what this process means to me:

“This universe of ours, what is it really? Here we are, centers of consciousness, surrounded by a buzzing confusion which we must try to understand. But we are of the selfsame stuff of the universe—perhaps ultimately a cloud of energy interacting with other clouds of energy—and on that account we are in the role more of participants than observers. We cannot distance ourselves from our ambient, hold it at arm’s length for impartial scrutiny. This fact has been heavily underlined by modern physics since it sets limits to our knowledge. What we experience is not external reality per se but our interaction with it, so that in a very real sense we are constructing our universe from ourselves.”