Sunday, August 8, 2010

Letter to a [Family Member]: What I Would Ask; What I Would Offer

A couple months ago, I got so angry at my [family member], I screamed on the phone, "You've never understood me at all!"
and slammed the phone down.

I wrote and apologized, but we haven't talked in person since, because I've been absolutely stuck about what I even want...
want to ask from them or from myself.

Stuck, stuck, stuck. Stuck in anger and hurt, resentment and futility.

In the middle of this night, it came clear what I want--of them and of me, and I wrote this e-mail, below.
Because it's almost impersonal---almost anyone could write it to almost anyone else--I want to share it here.
I think other people might relate.

It's slightly edited--if you have a family member, you can probably fill in the blanks of what I do not say with your own stories.
Dear [Family Member],

I was wide awake at 3 a.m., here,
so I started reading [Buddhist teacher] ]Pema Chodron, for the hundredth time,
and I thought, of course! Duh. I know what I want to ask for:
that old standby, compassion.

You know, compassion isn't pity.
It isn't even help,
not even those wonderful chicken-soup-for-a-cold kindnesses.

Those come from a desire to control,
to eradicate pain and suffering,
and, as we know by now, after all we've been through and are going through,
those ain't going anywhere.
Pain is an irradicable, integral part of life, woven into the fabric of being.
It comes with our bodies, it comes with our minds.
The challenge, the work, is to get right with it, not to make it go away once and for all.

So, compassion is not about trying to clean up someone else's pain,
or control their healing---
it's not about protecting people, much as we'd like to.
Because, as Ingmar Bergman says in Wild Strawberries,
ulimtately, we can't.

Compassion looks more like just sitting with someone and accepting that they're in pain.

Honestly, I think that is one of the hardest things to learn to do,
or it has been for me.
Instead, we want to clean the rotting food out of one another's refrigerators,
pay for someone to get a better haircut and fashionable glasses,
advise people on getting free of their addictions,
etc. etc. etc.

Often our motive is that we don't want to witness the pain,
because it hurts us so much.

So if we can't control or remove someone else's pain (ugliness, need, addiction),
sometimes we ignore it or mock it, or, my personal favorite, just go away--
--to relieve our own discomfort.

I've have received a lot of help from you in my life:
everything from clothes and food to jobs and transportation.
I've also received judgment, fear, and mockery.

But, you know ... just open-hearted accompaniment?
Not so much.

After [a hurtful incident], I knew I needed to get strong and stop looking to you for support.
(Once you even called me your charity case.)
I also realized I needed to stop offering you my brave little tug-boat support at any cost.
(You probably don't know how much I've offered that in our lives.)

It might have helped if I'd talked to you about this?
I guess I thought it needed to be unilateral;
I felt I had to be strong-- on my own--to protect myself from more humiliation.
(I wonder if you understand the power of mockery, and how everlasting it can be.)

But just as we can't manipulate life so other people don't suffer,
really, we can't protect ourselves either.
Pain comes in, one way or another.
Finally I couldn't play nice and remote with you anymore,
and I snapped and yelled at you.

That worked well.
My explosive expression of pent up pain just ushered in new pain.

So, I wasn't exactly being compassionate with you, or with me.
I'm sorry.
I wasn't very honest with you (and in some ways, with myself).
I'm sorry for that too.

Now I think, instead of battling with each other or trying to cure each other,
I would like it if we could learn to bear each other's suffering with more equanimity.
You know, without trying to rescue each other,
or punish each other for rescuing or not rescuing.*

I think in some ways, this would be very easy.
All we have to do is just stop what we were doing!

On the other hand, it would be very hard,
because we've been doing it a long time.

But that's what I'd like.
What do you think?

Your Family Member

* P.S. "Rescuing and not rescuing" reminds me of the poem "Forgiving Our Fathers" at the end of Smoke Signals.
You know it, but I'll add it here. It could read "Mothers" just as well.

"How Do We Forgive Our Fathers?"

by Dick Lourie

How do we forgive our Fathers?
Maybe in a dream
Do we forgive our Fathers for leaving us too often or forever
when we were little?

Maybe for scaring us with unexpected rage
or making us nervous
because there never seemed to be any rage there at all.

Do we forgive our Fathers for marrying or not marrying our Mothers?
For Divorcing or not divorcing our Mothers?

And shall we forgive them for their excesses of warmth or coldness?
Shall we forgive them for pushing or leaning
for shutting doors
for speaking through walls
or never speaking
or never being silent?

Do we forgive our Fathers in our age or in theirs
or their deaths
saying it to them or not saying it?

If we forgive our Fathers what is left?

--Dick Lourie
[You can hear the poem at the end of the movie, here.]

I took the window photo in Montana, in the abandonded farmhouse of bink's German grandparents.


momo said...

Thank you for this gift today.

ArtSparker said...

I hope this will help with your communication. Haven't seen smoke signals yet, I think it is on my father's (!) netflix list though- actually, I put it o there because it was in the neighborhood of the PBS Tony Hillerman mysteries because of the actor Wes Studi.

Fresca said...

MOMO: Oh, do you have a family member too? : )
(of course, sometimes WE are the "family member.")

ARTS: Well, I'm a mild pessinimst, so I go with "hope for the best, expect the worst."
It helped me to write it, anyway.

I'll be interested to hear what you think of Smoke Signals. It's one of my favorite moveis.

Annika said...

Wow - I was thinking of my father just this afternoon. Thanks for posting that poem.

aleph said...

this is wise and open hearted... and would be extremely useful for me if one day I wanted to start talking to some people of mine... who nowadays I simply prefer to avoid as much as possible, even if living toghether right now. wise and brave, thks for sharing it.

momo said...

well, I certainly have a father and an uneasy relationship with forgiveness where he is concerned.

Bianca Castafiore? said...

i appreciate the tips, although it is quite possible that some of my family members are so very wrong as to think moi the difficult party. harrumph.

still, you've kinda written a democratic guide, haven't you?

one thing, though!

an understandable error, really -- you like so many omit The Bitch Slap As Compassion. i find it is easier to sit and accept another's pain when i am quite sure of that pain (Hence The Bitch Slap or, for the really recalcitrant Family Member? The Spinning Back Fist.)

i don't know smoke signals but am putting it on the list.

oh... and excellent post. thank you.

Fresca said...

ANNIKA: Isn't it a great poem? My father isn't my main difficult family member, but who doesn't have someone difficult (impossible?) to forgive?

ALEPH: Avoidance is sometimes the best tactic. "Discretion is the better part of valour."

BIANCA: Tu!?! (May I call you "tu"?) Difficult? I can't imagine!
Um, actually, yeah... this letter applies as much to me as to Family Member.

Good point! In the full e-mail version of this missive, it is rather a bitch slap: "I'm in pain here, you idiot, and I'm going to make you feel it!"

bink said...

I like how you say what compassion isn't. It matches my vision of God. How can there be a loving God in all this mess of the world? Because God is compassionate: being with us in our suffering... and that's about it. I don't see much evidence of God interfering to end our suffering/clean up the mess we've made of the world.

God is the energy that helps sustain good: which looks pretty much like nothing happening. The all-powerful, interfering, wish-granting, string-pulling, punishing, blessing God--I don't see a lot of evidence for that God. But I feel compassion and sense that it is bigger than me.

P.S. Good letter to "family member"... I hope FW takes what isn't understood to he/r therapist and extracts some meaning there before you have to grapple with he/r.