A Heart to Understand
Here’s something that happened to me this week:
The mom of a kid on Elly’s baseball team told me my ex wife saved her life.
“Your wife,” she said, “Is amazing.”
“Ex wife,” I said, “But she can still be amazing.”
“Whoever she is. She saved my life.”
I expected that she’d tell me about how Elly’s mom had stepped in at the last minute and picked up her kid when she had to work late, or brought snacks to school when she couldn’t, or gave her a ride when her car was in the shop. The things we talk about when we say someone saved our lives. When someone is a real lifesaver.
“She saved my life,” she repeated and just looked me in the eye. Hers were almost teary. Almost. Mostly they were shining. And I got it. I hugged her. I’m not entirely sure why. It was the right thing to do, I guess.
“Next week is my last treatment, but the cancer is already completely gone” she said.
K (Elly’s mom) is an oncologist. But I don’t think it was the drugs she administered that made her a lifesaver to Elly’s teammate’s mom.
I think it was Colorado.
I don’t know if she still does this, but she used to go to Colorado for every year for three or four days of training on doctor-patient communication for oncologists. It’s really a retreat. Spiritual guidance for cancer doctors. A yearly reminder that we are all human beings and that being human is hard.
Doctors aren’t usually taught that. That’s why I don’t usually like to see doctors. It’s why I don’t particularly care for Western medicine. Acupuncturists, for instance, are taught to start from the fact that we are all human beings, all part of something much bigger, and that being human is hard. That’s how it works, I think. By starting with love.
I could write forever about that, but I’m not going to.
I’m convinced that K saved this woman’s life, not because of the chemicals she used to treat her, but because she learned how to talk to her. How to see her as a human being. Otherwise, she could have treated the cancer, put it into remission, gotten her back to normal daily activities. Given her back a normal life. But she couldn’t have saved it.
Because the real thing K learned in Colorado is that doctors are also human and, even if they can’t allow themselves to completely fall apart in the face of illness and death, they are allowed to be affected by it. They are allowed to be a little vulnerable.
Being vulnerable is important.
You know, I think, without question, and I can tell you as a researcher with 11,000 pieces of data, I cannot find a single example of courage, moral courage, spiritual courage, leadership courage, relational courage, I cannot find a single example of courage in my research that was not born completely of vulnerability.
—Brené Brown (Interview from On Being with Krista Tippet)
I hate being vulnerable. Really hate it. I will do almost anything to avoid it. But it still comes up. All the time. I have to be vulnerable sometimes. And it’s a gamble because there are two ways we can react to vulnerability.
We can react to it with violence, or we can react to it with vulnerability.
Reacting to vulnerability with violence always comes from fear. From pachad. The fear I wrote about last time. The fear of phantoms. Of illusions we create in our minds. It’s a reaction that comes from a profound sense of shame. Of victimhood.
Self-described victims are extremely dangerous. They feel justified in anything they do because of that illusion of victimhood, and so they victimize others. It’s all in their heads. They are all in their heads.
When we meet vulnerability with vulnerability, we heal each other. We experience yir’ah—the fear and awe that is Love. And we share that Love. Because there’s nothing else we can do with it. And it’s not easy.
Being a victim is much easier because it means we never really have to grow up. Never have to face the parts of us we may not like. Never take responsibility.
But it also makes us destructive. So destructive.
This week we read Ki Tavo (Devarim [Deuteronomy] 26:1-29:8). At the end of the parshah Moshe is reminding the Israelites that they have seen the great things God did for them, the signs and wonders. Then he says this:
.וְלֹא-נָתַן יְהוָה לָכֶם לֵב לָדַעַת, וְעֵינַיִם לִרְאוֹת וְאָזְנַיִם לִשְׁמֹעַ, עַד, הַיּוֹם הַזֶּה
But up until now Y-H-V-H hasn’t given you a heart to understand, or eyes to see, or ears to hear.
Until now, the Moment–What Is, hasn’t given you the heart to really get it.
When we live in our heads, we are victims, we are ashamed, and we see ourselves as worthless piles of shit. The Israelites were victims up until that moment. Victims who didn’t have to grow up. Victims who lived in their heads. Creating, over and over again, a mental image that they could cling to: their own sense of entitled victimhood. Victimhood that justifies violence in the face of vulnerability. That’s what victims do.
But when we are vulnerable, when we meet the vulnerability of other people with our own vulnerability, we move into our hearts. In our hearts, we understand. We experience the Love that exists in the Moment. In everything, everywhere, always. We become a part of it. And we heal each other through it.
Elul is half over. We are halfway through our heshbon hanefesh, our deep reflection on our life for the year. Are we victims who hurt other people, or are we vulnerable so that we can heal them?