Don’t Tell Them to “Buck Up!”
Don’t Just Say “Buck Up!”
Rev. Anthony Makar
Nov. 16, 2014
From medical doctor Jeff Kane we hear this story, how “a university medical center surveyed its former patients about their experiences when hospitalized. One question was, ‘Of all personnel, which helped you most to feel better?’ Response categories included physicians, nurses, and technicians, but the runaway winner was a write-in: housekeepers. Who’s the housekeeper? She’s the lady with the aching back who wheels her mop bucket into your room in the quiet hours and asks, ‘How’re you doing?’ She probably hasn’t a notion of the condition of your intestines and coronaries. She’s there to clean the floor, but she needs to find a bit of rest first and would love a little company.” Dr. Kane concludes, “patients say they get their best emotional help from people who are interested in them, not particularly in their disease. When we feel recognized, witnessed, understood, we shine.”
I read this in Dr. Kane’s wonderful book entitled The Healing Companion: Simple and Effective Ways Your Presence Can Help People Heal, and that’s our subject this morning. Our Seventh Unitarian Universalist Principle asks us to affirm interdependence, and being a healing presence, one to the other, is absolutely one way.
It’s the way to beauty. “The most beautiful people,” says Dr. Elizabeth Kubler-Ross, “are those who have known defeat, known suffering, known struggle, known loss, and have found their way out of the depths. These persons have an appreciation, a sensitivity, and an understanding of life that fills them with compassion, gentleness, and a deep loving concern. Beautiful people do not just happen.” Listen especially to that last line: “Beautiful people do not just happen.” We want to be a part of it happening, wherever we find ourselves: at home, at work, here in our Beloved Community.
Practical love takes us there. I want to be very specific about this looks like, the skillful means involved. But I don’t want to rush to that and pass over the surprising implications of the story about housekeepers…
What healing is, is perhaps very different from what we think it is or have been told it is.
If I were to ask you to conjure up images of healing, what would pop into your mind? Given our culture in which healthcare is so often equated to technology, I wouldn’t be surprised if your imagination served up images of X-rays or stethoscopes or digital readouts or test tubes or something like that. The subtle message is that the only sort of healing that counts is what is done to cure the tumor, the sugar-level abnormalities of the blood, the deformed heart valve, and so on. It is, says Dr. Kane, “a substantial mental obstruction: the notion that the physical disease is the entire ball game.”
The “substantial mental obstruction” persists, even though no less than the patriarch of North American medicine, Sir William Osler, said, one hundred year ago, that “it is more important to know what sort of patient has the disease than what sort of disease has the patient.” But doctors and nurses and you and I can talk to people who are sick as if the person wasn’t there and the most important thing about them was their tumor. We see right through the person. Talk right past the person.
And when we do that, we miss the boat. Because if I have cancer or diabetes or heart disease or something, what really disturbs me is not so much the physical disease per se as the emotions that that fact generates in my life: I am emotionally devastated. Pain, fear, anger, inconvenience, frustration, grief. All my plans smashed to smithereens. “My emotions wreak havoc at unexpected times,” says Carol Jordan, a UUCA member who is recovering from cancer as we speak. “Some of our UU hymns and UUCA music, as well as expressions of love and care from congregants, are surefire triggers, especially early in the journey. Public tears are hard.”
This is why the housekeepers mattered so much to the patients in the hospital. Their connection was more on the level of human emotions, where the bulk of the suffering was happening. They were operating at that human level. They could have cared less about intestines and coronaries. Their questions to the patients were more along the lines of, “What’s it been like for you?” “What bothers you about being sick?” “I don’t know what to say to that but I’m glad you told me. You are not alone.”
Beautiful people do not just happen. Love builds a bridge, and people struggling in deepest despair can cross over, and know peace—even if physically they are never cured. Still, they can know peace.
Which leads to the third implication of the story. How you don’t have to be a medical or psychological expert to build that bridge. You don’t have to have degrees, or be “specially qualified.” Just be a friend. Just connect. Just hold my hand, and I’ll hold yours.
But now, how to make that connection? What are the skillful means?
It’s not obvious, frankly. Lots of reasons why. One is, we are not taught well how to deal with loss. “Don’t cry—we’ll get you a new one,” says the parent, and the child gets the message that feelings are bad and that embracing something as uniquely precious is just foolishness. One after another, we absorb the messages that come to us from family and peers and surrounding culture: if you are going to feel bad, well, you’re going to have to do it all by yourself; feeling bad is selfish—be strong for others; keep busy and that will solve everything. Messages like this, on and on.
This is not connection with self. This is disconnection.
No wonder we can be so awkward with our feelings, so unable to tolerate our emotional messiness. And therefore so unskillful in tolerating the emotional messiness we experience in others, whatever their circumstance may be (a physical sickness but what about other common sources of loss: death of a loved one, big life change like a move or a divorce, or mental illness like depression…) We can actually hear ourselves trying to “silver line” people’s hurt:
At least you have a good job
All things must pass
You’ll find someone else
God will never give you more than you can handle
Count your blessings
Positive psychology researcher Brene Brown says that empathy fuels connection via
- Taking on another’s perspective
- Staying out of judgment
- Recognizing emotion in another, and
- Communicating that emotion back
But, again, it can be hard to do. Carol Jordan talks about times when she’s encountered the exact opposite of this. People offering unsolicited advice and/or offers to connect with a friend or relative who had the same illness. (But, she says, “Every cancer and illness is highly individualized with respect to virtually all aspects of it.”) People prying with their questions, treating her like an object of curiosity. People being judgmental and making comments about her chosen medical regimens being poison or toxic or in some other way completely unacceptable to them even though they are not the sick ones. People making comments about changed appearance—as if the person struggling with the disease doesn’t know.
Again, that’s just the worst. To not be seen in one’s wholeness. To become, in another person’s eyes, nothing but one’s disease. It creates such loneliness.
Beautiful people do not just happen. We have to help. We have to build the bridge.
The place to begin is with oneself. Last week during the Embracing Meditation we heard this quote from spiritual teacher Shakti Gawain: “My willingness to be intimate with my own deep feelings creates the space for intimacy with another.” It’s about emotional intelligence. I can take on your perspective—with all its difficult emotions—only to the degree I can take on my perspective and stand in my own fire.
For men, especially, this can be hard. Psychologist David Wexler talks about men’s susceptibility to emotional overload. Research shows that a man’s arousal system (including his heart rate and blood pressure and sensory alertness and readiness to respond) is triggered far more quickly than a woman’s—and it takes him much much longer to calm down. This is physiological reality. It’s why men often withdraw emotionally, or why they can stonewall. Why they can (unfortunately!) be heard to say, “I’ll do anything to make her shut up!” Why even good guys can belittle their partners when the partner tries to bring up a difficult topic. Because it’s all about avoiding the emotional overload that’s inevitably going to come, that lingers like a migraine. He’s still feeling it long after she’s emotionally moved on. Not because he’s bad or weak, but because evolution has made the male nervous system hypervigilant, and he hasn’t learned how to cope.
Dr. Wexler suggests a number of things that men can do to increase their capacity to stay with their emotions and not be overwhelmed—and of course, it’s not just men who can benefit. Breathing into the emotion—visualizing it as softening up and flowing—can be a great help. Mindfulness techniques like meditation are always good—learning how to see ourselves with compassion and without judgment. If angry or obsessive thoughts are getting us firmly stuck in a bad place, then seeking out a distraction that can loosen things up: as in watching a funny movie or engaging in a sport or doing something fun. You can go back to the feelings later. Lots of possible things to do, which is how we take care of our own basic emotional needs. No one can do this for us. This is part of our independence, to balance out our interdependent bridge building.
Build the inner bridge first.
Beyond this, healing asks us to just listen to the other person. Carol Jordan calls this “attuned communication,” which, she says, “can be tricky.” “Much of the time, I like the ‘you go girl, hang in there, you’re strong, you’re gonna beat this’ messaging. But in the lowest moments, I just want acknowledgement of the pain, for someone to be with me in it for a moment, but not to try and ‘fix it.’ Just listening is appreciated, even if it gets uncomfortable or the patient ‘drones on.’” Carol goes on to say, “If uncertain what to say in person or in writing, simple comments are always appreciated, such as I’ve missed you, I’m thinking about you, I’m sorry you’re going through this.”
That’s so good. When someone is in a hole and you are climbing down to be with them, do so reverently. It really is sacred space, just like Brene Brown said. A good opening question is, “I’ve heard you have [x]. Are you ok talking about that?” If they say yes, then follow up with, “What’s it been like for you?” And then listen. Keep your own speech to a minimum. Let them tell their story their own way. Never finish their sentences for them. And then there is this advice from writer Kim Harrison: “treat people with understanding when you can, and fake it when you can’t until you do understand.” You just don’t have to have it all together to build the love bridge. Just show up with an open heart.
Dr. Kane shares the story of his friend Rita and her daughter Penny:
Rita has lung cancer eight years ago. Following surgery, she went into remission for five years, a delightful surprise for Rita and her doctor as well. She moved hundreds of miles to be with Penny, but then, over the next several months, felt increasingly tired and short of breath. Having secured no local doctor yet, she had Penny drive her to the emergency room. There it was discovered that her cancer had returned. This time it was a mass that filled her pericardium, the sac around her heart.
“I didn’t know then that my life was threatened,” Rita says, “but I learned it right away when I watched the doctors. Faces don’t lie, and each doctor looked graver than the last. I knew I was in big trouble.”
Dr. Morton, a heart surgeon, confirmed to Rita that she was indeed teetering on the edge, He operating that day, removing the tumor and her pericardium along with it.
Rita woke in the intensive care unit with Penny at her beside. Her anesthesia cleared over the next twelve hours, and she was finally able to speak.
The first thing she said was, “I’m afraid.”
“But I think you’re out of the woods now, Mom”
“I’m really afraid, anyway.”
[Now here is where Penny could have insisted on silver lining things … or to count her blessings .. or to buck up … But instead, she says: ] “Can you say more?”
Rita began to speak about her discomfort. Initially she rambled, as she was in pain and still somewhat disoriented by drugs she’d been given, but at last was able to say, “I think people here won’t know who I am.”
“What do you mean?”
Rita looked Penny in the eye. “Honey, I’m special. I’m strong, a fighter. I’ve survived diseases and treatments people die from all the time. I’m new here, and people don’t know me. They might think I’m just an average patient and give up on me.”
She soon fell asleep. Penny phoned Dr. Morton and told him what Rita had said.
Late that evening he came to her bedside, sat, took her hand, and said, “I received your medical records and read them. By God, you accomplished the unexpected before, and I think maybe you can do it again.”
“How I needed to hear that!” Rita says now. “That nubbin of hope was my turning point. My fear just melted away.” Three years later, she remains free of cancer and leads a satisfying life.
And that’s the story. And note how pivotal Penny’s role was in Rita’s fear being healed. What she did went contrary to the common “you’re the suffering person and I’m the healer” mode: you’re empty and I’m full, you’re inside the problem and I’m delivering the solution. Instead, Penny, through her listening, helped Rita feel her fear and discern in it what she most needed: recognition. Someone to see her.
This is the profoundest part of listening. Helping another enter deeply into the Mystery of their suffering, to realize the meaning that is there for them. We don’t have to add it. It’s already there, and they just need someone to help them give it voice.
Beautiful people do not just happen.
Love builds the bridge.