Monday, October 05, 2009

Day 26 (Round IV) "In the trenches": lachrymae edition

I deal with tears surprisingly frequently in my job. Not as often as priests or doctors, of course, and not even close to as often as hospice workers and EMTs--may their cycles of rebirth be shortened!--but still with surprising frequency. The stereotype would be of the "tear-stained email" (Dharmonia's phrase) or face-to-face visit when someone comes to tell me that their grandmother has died for the fifth or sixth time, but in point of fact, I deal with real (not crocodile) tears with surprising frequency.

Thankfully, they're not all tears of frustration or anger--though that is the source of the kids' upset an unconscionably large percentage of the time--because they can sometimes result from relief, stress, or true sorrow. When they hit this age of 18-24, it's when some of them for the first time encounter death at close range: a grandparent, a friend, and it brings home to them the terrible brevity of life, in a way that their teenaged Bubble of Presumed Invincibility usually shields them from.

During the 12 years I was in group therapy, I learned a lot about how the stages of powerful emotion work--not only by observing my fellows in the group, because their emotion was often so powerful it was hard to refrain from getting sucked-in by it, and because, hell, we were all in the therapy group precisely because we needed work on how to handle emotions.

But more from watching how my great therapist/Dharma sister/teacher handled the emotions of others. The therapist's charge is to maintain perspective (not "objectivity", which is a bullshit chimera that some therapists hide beyond in order to avoid commitment), but the Buddhist teacher's charge is to not only maintain perspective but also to manifest compassion. Which is a delicate line to walk, and every circumstance is different. But I also learned that one of the best ways to walk that line most constructively is to be present in the moment. And part of that "being present" is to sit with someone else's pain, and refrain from either trying to escape it, or to "fix it"--both of which are attempts to avoid it.

My therapist did neither. She was present. She stayed present. She engaged with the in-the-moment needs of the person and the situation. I watched when she would speak and when she would be silent, when she would nod or remain impassive, when she would tender the Kleenex or when her own eyes would fill with tears.

I also learned to watch her breathe with my fellows: when someone was overwhelmed with emotion, or even more in those moments when the emotion was still bottled-up inside--when she/he--and our therapist--were pounding up against the internal barriers that had walled-in all that pain for all those sad silent years. At those moments, sometimes, I would see her watching the person's body as well as face, watching the shoulders, hands, and spine. I would watch her keep still when that emotion was still bottled inside. I watched her lean forward and nod when the stumbling words began to come. I learned to know when the logjam would break, and the tears of old sorrow and old pain were about to flow, because her own eyes would fill with tears. And I learned not to try to stem those tears, but to sit silently and be present when they came--because the release of those tears parallels the release of the old painful emotions. And when the tears were over, I would watch her watch the person's breathing--and as the old emotions washed away, she would match her breathing with theirs.

I don't deal with that kind of old painful emotion quite so much: not because my students have experienced any less heartache than anyone else--though it's simple arithmetic that if you're 19, you've had less time to experience the suffering of somebody twice or three times as old--but because the nature of my job is different. It's not my job to help them "work through" their old pain.

But it is part of my job to recognize the reality of the pain they may be experiencing. I'm their teacher, and so I am charged to use all appropriate means and information to help them learn. Sometimes that includes learning to cope with sorrow, old pain, or injustice unchecked.

Thankfully, it's also part of my job to help them learn how to handle the power of the positive emotions that their job sometimes brings, because sometimes they are tears of appreciation and gratitude. When the intensity of the emotions that musicians deal with, day in and day out, making and breaking them down--and have done for 40,000 years--when that intensity comes out, when a young person recognizes the power of the traditions of performance and ritual she or he is entered, there maybe should be some tears.

I love my job. I love my students. And I'm grateful for the work that I, and we, do.

Brings tears for me, too. Still.


laurinskii said...

Dr. Smith, I really appreciated this post. Handling other people's grief is something I struggle with, and honestly, up until I read what you wrote, I had never really considered just sitting with them. I had always thought that the best way I could be there for them was to fix their problem or give them advice on how to make it better.
Thanks for the insight, I appreciate it.


coyotebanjo said...

You're welcome. It took me a long time to learn that "fixing things" is often not what people grieving are looking for; rather, they simply want to know that others are hearing that they're in pain.