Posted on July 22, 2018 by Jenn Zatopek
After the end of a long work week, I locked up my counseling office, and walked slowly toward the main hallway leading downstairs. Two of the residents at the home stopped me and asked for help, their brown skin gleaming beautiful and sweaty thanks to the relentless hot weather and tending to rambunctious children. I smiled at them, grateful for distraction from my back pain and for the holy wonder of intimacy that occurs between newly acquainted strangers. They wished me a good weekend and I returned the goodwill, marveling at the paradoxes of life.
There is so much violence in the world and it occurs on our earth, between people and animals, to our children and the marginalized. It is heartbreaking. And yet there is so much beauty in creation, in the love and grace and peacekeeping that occurs between people, in music, in art, and in spirituality that it frequently stuns me to tears. I practiced gratitude for being of service to others and did so in those seemingly mundane events of getting to know some of my new counseling clients this past week.
But for now, it was time for me to get some help of my own. Back in graduate school, one of the most gracious counseling professors reminded us regularly that the best counselors have their own counselors. She would say this calmly yet firmly, with a hint of urgency in her voice, as if she knew once we fled her nest we would work to help others beyond our own limits.
Thank God for teachers.
I drove away from the home and weaved my way through the older neighborhood, driving with intention, making my way across town to see my therapist. I looked at the homes, colorful clapboard houses, and stately bungalows with wraparound porches, and the burnt grass, baked to spun gold, and pondered contacting a family member. A part of me sternly reminded myself that I needed to honor my elders, and the litany of negative self-talk began. Why don’t you try harder? Maybe if you were different things would be better?
It’s funny, but these voices usually say the same old things; they don’t really have any new material to work with.
Over the years, interactions with this person have been tense, sparse, and grief-stricken, and not for lack of trying. I reviewed all the times I sought her approval and fell short, wondering if I were doomed to repeat a very ancient childhood story of constant performance and rejection.
So I did something new. I turned on some music and sang, bellowing as loud as I could. I sang for me and for everyone who has been hurt, rejected, and abandoned by others. We all of us are singing to be seen and known, and these two desires, to be deeply seen and known, are the most marvelous gifts that family, friends, members of recovery meetings, clergy, and counselors can give to people.
The problem is that love and belonging, affection and nurturing, does not often come from one’s origin family. It is the ideal, of course, but not the reality for many humans.
As I kept driving in the blinding hot sun and breathing deeply, I considered the problem from a few angles: I could reach out to her and try again for relationship. I could suggest dinner at a local restaurant or invite myself over to her home, hoping and praying that this time things would be different. I could be the one to make things happen.
I was becoming mentally ill in the process of trying and failing to find a solution in my own mind. This is where having a relationship with Jesus helps.
As I got out of the car and walked slowly to the shady office building, surrounded by large post oaks, I asked again to Spirit what I needed to do, and this response came:
Why would you go seeking mercy from someone who can only offer harsh judgement?
I stopped and looked around and smiled in wonder. Opening up to Spirit and letting God talk to me has been one of the most joyful and adventurous things I have ever done. These experiences jar me from my tangled thinking, and help move toward a more compassionate and loving response toward life, others, and myself.
So what if the most compassionate response I can do for myself is to stop clinging to the false expectation that this person can give me what she herself does not have to give? What if the most loving response is to forgive her for the times she has hurt me? What if I gave myself permission to do what I advise my counseling clients to do, and simply let go of hoping for a better relationship and accept what is?
Grace comes in many forms, and perhaps the most stunning one is an answer that involves rest and waiting, rather than frenetic attempts to grab at connection with people who are simply unable and unwilling to do so.
So do me a favor and remember that it really is okay to rest in the space between encounters with others. It is right and good and divinely inspired to take care of the one person that you can only care for today. You honor yourself with mercy and grace when you admit “I do not have the emotional energy to reach out right now.” It really is holy for you to find the people in your life who love you for who you are, who offer you a safe respite from the pressures of modern life, rather than heap on more condemnation.
As I drove home after the appointment, I watched the night sky settle over the city like a cloak, deep indigo with streaks of ruby red disappearing into the horizon. The air was hot but cooling off slightly, and I slipped into my house and settled down with a good book and a cat, and took my own advice and rested. Things may or may not change with this family member, but I am relaxing, loosening my grip, and letting Spirit do the work in the waiting.