A Unity of Souls

The fourth regret of the dying, according to Bronnie Ware (see previous posts), is not staying in touch with friends. One of the most beautiful passages on friendship was penned by the renowned theologian and author, Henri Nouwen…

Friendship is one of the greatest gifts a human being can receive. It is a bond beyond common goals, common interests, or common histories. It is a bond stronger than sexual union can create, deeper than a shared fate can solidify, and even more intimate than the bonds of marriage or community. Friendship is being with the other in joy and sorrow, even when we cannot increase the joy or decrease the sorrow. It is a unity of souls that gives nobility and sincerity to love. Friendship makes all of life shine brightly. Blessed are those who lay down their lives for their friends.

In my mind, true friendship is a heart-centered connection that deepens through authentic communication and unwavering commitment. Time is not the key ingredient. Understanding is. Our most enduring friendships, according to Nouwen, are not the people who have given us advice or cures for our ailments, but those who have been able “to share our pain and touch our wounds with a warm and tender hand.”

Staying “in touch,” as Bronnie Ware writes, means so much more than simply making time for friendship; it means allowing ourselves to be touched in the most vulnerable of ways. We can be friends on the surface without truly understanding another’s feelings. We can catch up on the latest gossip, share a laugh or two, vent frustrations, and whine about co-workers and kids. Yet still, we can be out-of-touch with what’s really going on with each other at our core.

Recently, I came to terms with a loss of a friendship. I didn’t want to say goodbye, for we shared many common goals, interests, and histories. Yet still, I felt I wasn’t receiving the gift I deserved. The “unity of souls” that Nouwen so beautifully writes about was missing. I hadn’t accepted this truth until recently, mostly because, I hadn’t believed that I was deserving of this amazing type of bond. I feared being vulnerable, telling my friend how I truly felt about a conflict. I took a risk. I had to, for I longed for a deeper connection–a unity of souls. Sadly, I didn’t receive the understanding I had hoped for. But thankfully, she gave me the opportunity to tell her how I felt.

A unity of souls begins with emotional honesty. Next month I’ll conclude my series on the Five Regrets of the Dying with the last wish expressed by Ware’s patients–finding the courage  to express our feelings. I hope you’ll join me.

You Are Lovable

Until now, my blog was titled, Alone Together. But the title doesn’t fit anymore,  because something miraculous has changed in me. I no longer feel alone.

I started writing this blog 14 months ago. At that time, life was difficult. I was struggling both personally and professionally, afraid to ask for help, afraid help wouldn’t come. I had lived so independently and accomplished so much–all by myself. I was proud of that fact, convinced I didn’t need anyone to help me find my way. Yet lurking beneath my confident facade of “not needing” lived a vulnerable child in search of love.

In the past, I believed that I needed to do something to be loved. My belief wasn’t conscious. It was buried deep inside.  My depression clued me in, as much as I didn’t want it to. I realized it was time to learn, despite the fear I felt. It was time to respond to the lonely child within, not by joining an online dating service, but by committing to a year-long training where I’d not only learn new skills to use in my therapy practice, but where I’d do my own therapeutic work and deepen the love for myself.

Seven wonderful people came together once a month to unveil hidden secrets in a safe, supportive place. Together, we risked vulnerability with the goal of becoming more emotionally healthy and whole. The process at times was frightening, but it was also nurturing, creative, and soul-satisfying, just like love is when you get it right.

In the process, I fell in love with my playmates, and in return, they fell in love with me. We all did great work. All our issues were different. But we accepted each other completely. We all loved each other through the pain we had carried in our heart for years. There was nothing any of us needed to do to earn each others’ love. There was no need to please, no pressure to perform, no problems to fix–nothing to do except be truly ourselves.

Being myself was scary. I didn’t want to remember the part of me that was lonely inside. I didn’t want to expose her to the world for fear of being hurt again. It did hurt, but the pain was bearable, especially because I was with people who loved me despite my flaws. Because of them, and the wonderful therapists who led our group, I was able to be vulnerable and risk being seen. In their presence, I allowed myself to stop pretending that I was fine on my own. And when I did, the joy I felt was beyond belief.

Alone is not my way anymore. Together is so much better. On this Valentines Day 2012, I wish you deep love within your heart, for despite your flaws, YOU ARE LOVABLE.

Christmas in My Heart

My heart is alive in Christmas, but a few weeks ago it wasn’t so. My first entry, Winter Solstice, recounts the darkness I struggled with this past year. I hope this won’t discourage you from reading it, for it ends in a hopeful place.

The following excerpt from “A Child’s Christmas in Wales” by Dylan Thomas, captures the beauty in the darkness…

Looking through my bedroom window, out into the moonlight and the unending smoke-colored snow, I could see the lights in the windows of all the other houses on our hill and hear the music rising from them up the long, steadily falling night. I turned the gas down, I got into bed. I said some words to the close and holy darkness, and then I slept.

For many weeks I was asleep in the darkness, afraid the night would never end. But it did. It ended when I looked out into the world and saw light in the windows of people who loved me, people who were able to hold me “close and holy” while I slept. Their light rekindled my faith and reminded me that I’m never alone in this world.

As 2010 comes to an end, and a New Year dawns, I’m imagining brilliant light streamingthrough my windows and back out into yours, so that together, wewill honor Christmas inour hearts the whole year long.

Winter Solstice

Depression. I was a walking Cymbalta commercial. Tired, achy, unfocused, despairing, crying until my once sparking eyes receded into their sockets, puffy and red. My compassionate heart-felt hollow and aching. My once joyful self exorcised from my body, whereabouts unknown. “Who is this person that has taken over my existence? I don’t know her,” I screamed out. “I don’t want to know her.” I hated who I was. I hated the diagnosis that defined my current reality, a label coined in the name of mental health. No clinical diagnosis had been given me, but having just completed my masters in counseling, it was evident that I met the criteria for a mood disorder, major depressive episode.

Disorder. I had learned a great deal about disordered thinking and feeling in graduate school. Research-based findings and immersion in theoretical frameworks had defined my journey for three long years. It was hell letting go of an enlivening coaching practice to build competence in a field built on diagnosis and disorder. Creativity was limited; experiential learning rare. Despite my disappointment with the methods used to teach me, I was determined to achieve my lifelong goal to become a professional counselor. I believed that earning licensure would add value to my work and secure my future in a way coaching alone never could.

Death. All the while I was in graduate school my 12-year old business was dying a slow, steady death. My receipts had dwindled with the economic downturn; my website became infected with malicious code. Still, I held onto my pride and my pleasure, facilitating a few retreats and tele-forums and squeezing in a few coaching clients between research papers and tests. I loved (and still love) what I created with HumanArts, a coaching and consulting practice designed to help people and organizations become creative, resourceful, and whole. But I knew it was time to let go of my creation. The universe was beckoning me to move forward again. Despite my resistance and fear of the unknown, I shut down my website, disconnected the phone line, canceled the P.O. Box, and scrapped my artistic letterhead. My heart grieved. I felt lost, a woman alone in search of a new identity.

Departure. This ending wasn’t the only cause for my depression. It was also fueled by the departure of my only sibling, Sandy, who moved to Los Angeles in July of this year. I wallowed in self-pity, convincing myself that she was the only person I could truly lean on, and now after 30 years of togetherness in Atlanta, she was gone. Her timing sucked! She left me when I really needed her. I had just taken a part-time job with a dysfunctional county agency, a treatment center for substance use disorder. I was frustrated with red tape and hierarchical controls, discouraged about my choice to enter the mental health field after years of entrepreneurial freedom. I had finally earned the right to counsel individuals with “disorders,” and here I was, struggling with a disorder of my own.

Disconnection. “Help me, please!” I screamed out loud to no one and everyone. Numb with pain one day, anguished the next, no matter what surfaced I knew I couldn’t suffer alone anymore. “Haven’t I already been down this path?” I bemoaned. “Didn’t I write a saga of loneliness in A Journey of My Choosing?” Despite my resistance and fear of the unknown, I knew exactly what I needed to do.

Reconnection. I picked up the phone and called my friend Kathy. Again and again, she was faithfully there. I asked my friend Mardeene to come over and comfort me. I needed to be held and cry in her arms. I let it all out on the phone with my sister, purging my emotions until I felt limp. To salve my tired soul, I took hot baths and played soothing music. I cooked healthy meals and drank hot tea before going to bed. I walked in the park, practiced yoga, and meditated at sunrise. I got out of the house even when I didn’t feel like it. I asked for help, over and over, despite the shame I was feeling inside. I stopped giving so much and started taking much more. Then finally one night after six months of darkness, I caught a glimmer of light during a Winter Solstice celebration.

I always return to Mary & Martha’s Place at Solstice, a spiritual center that fills me with peace and a renewed sense of hope. Mardeene agreed to join me and I was thankful that she did. Sitting in the pew of a dimly lit sanctuary, my soul sank into “Sweet Darkness,” a poem by David Whyte…

When your eyes are tired
the world is tired also.

When your vision has gone
no part of the world can find you.

Time to go into the dark
where the night has eyes
to recognize its own.

There you can be sure
you are not beyond love.

The dark will be your womb
tonight.

The night will give you a horizon
further than you can see.

You must learn one thing:
the world was made to be free in.

Give up all the other worlds
except the one to which you belong.

Sometimes it takes darkness and the sweet
confinement of your aloneness
to learn

anything or anyone
that does not bring you alive
is too small for you.

A surge of grief caused me to shutter. Mardeene took my hand and squeezed it tightly, there once again, tending to my needs. Together, we meditated in sweet darkness and sang softly with a community of gentle voices. Near the end of the service, we stepped out of our pew to join a procession, moving toward an altar filled with unlit votive candles. I hadn’t noticed that I was the last in line until I arrived at the table. I lit my candle prayerfully before attempting to hand my light stick back to the women guiding us along. Instead of taking my light stick, she handed me another votive. There were many more candles left to light, and miraculously, I was the one who was invited to repeat this ritual over and over again.

Over the last few years I lost much of my light spending time in places “too small” for me. My creative spirit withered in the halls of academia, and it’s currently suppressed by government bureaucracy. I trust these experiences are serving a purpose, but I also know it’s time to break free once again. My mind isn’t clear of exactly where I’m headed, but my heart knows for sure that I can’t go it alone.  I’ve been there and done that on a solo journey of my choosing. Today I choose to connect to an enlivening community.

Connection is key in the journey of self-development. The research proves that growth-fostering relationships enhance creativity, clarity, and vitality. So there, theories do serve a purpose and education is useful (I smile as I write), but what’s most valuable to me right now are the people who bring me alive.

My intention for 2011 is to expand my connections, “Alone, Together,” writing and reading my way into re-creation, overcoming the darkness as I step more fully into the light. If you’re seeking more light, more love, and more connections, join me.