The beginning of love is the will to let those we love be perfectly themselves, the resolution not to twist them to fit our own image. If in loving them we do not love what they are, but only their potential likeness to ourselves, then we do not love them: we only love the reflection of ourselves we find in them.
— Thomas Merton from No Man Is an Island
Without new ground rules, we will revert to the norms implicit in any culture that tell us how we are supposed to talk to each other. In our culture, these include politeness, a ban on inquiring into things that are “none of your business,” and a willingness to give the other the benefit of the doubt. In academic settings, these conventional rules are overlaid with another set that encourage competition: we should question each other’s claims, think oppositionally about what we are hearing, and be ready with a quick response.
That mix is obviously a recipe for confusion. The conventional norm of “making nice” with each other, folded into the professional norm of competition, creates an ethos in which it feels dangerous to speak or to listen. Then we proceed to multiply that confusion, and the sense of danger that goes with it, by interleaving a third set of norms implicit in conventional and academic culture alike: we were put on earth to advise, fix, and save each other, and whenever an opportunity to do so presents itself, we should seize it!
This fix-it response kicks in almost reflexively when someone breaks free of the first and second set of norms and actually manages to name a real problem he or she is having, for example, in teaching. At the very moment of feeling most vulnerable—having violated norms that tell us to be both guarded and competitive—the person is suddenly invaded with advice: “I used to have that problem, but here is how I solved it,” or “You ought to read so-and-so’s book. It tells you exactly how to deal with a situation like that.”
Sometimes the advice is offered in order to be helpful, and sometimes it is given to make the adviser feel superior. But the motivation does not matter, for the outcome is almost always the same: quick fixes make the person who shared the problem feel unheard and dismissed.
If we want to support each other’s inner lives, we must remember a simple truth: the human soul does not want to be fixed, it wants simply to be seen and heard. If we want to see and hear a person’s soul, there is another truth we must remember: the soul is like a wild animal—tough, resilient, and yet shy. When we go crashing through the woods shouting for it to come out so we can help it, the soul will stay in hiding. But if we are willing to sit quietly and wait for a while, the soul may show itself.
We need ground rules for dialogue that allow us to be present to another person’s problems in a quiet, receptive way that encourages the soul to come forth, a way that does not presume to know what is right for the other but allows the other’s soul to find its own answers at its own level and pace.
— Parker Palmer from The Courage to Teach
Without justifying or condemning ourselves, we do the courageous work of opening to suffering. This can be the pain that comes when we put up barriers or the pain of opening our heart to our own sorrow or that of another being. We learn as much about doing this from our failures as we do from our successes. In cultivating compassion we draw from the wholeness of our experience — our suffering, our empathy, as well as our cruelty and terror. It has to be this way. Compassion is not a relationship between the healer and the wounded. It’s a relationship between equals. Only when we know our own darkness well can we be present with the darkness of others. Compassion becomes real when we recognize our shared humanity.
— Pema Chödrön from The Places That Scare You
When a loved one is in physical or emotional pain,
when their world no longer makes sense,
your simple listening can work wonders.
Cry with them.
Be silent with them.
Validate their feelings, however painful.
Help them feel known in this world.
Don’t offer clever answers now. Offer yourself.
Don’t preach and teach.
Don’t judge them, or make them feel wrong for thinking their thoughts.
So they do not feel alone.
So they can touch upon their own courage.
Their capacity to withstand intense feelings.
When a friend is in physical or emotional pain,
when their world no longer makes sense,
offer them the greatest medicine of all:
— Jeff Foster from How To Love
In this love, you are understood as you are without mask or pretension. The superficial and functional lies and half-truths of social acquaintance fall away, you can be as you really are. Love allows understanding to dawn, and understanding is precious. Where you are understood, you are at home. Understanding nourishes belonging. When you really feel understood, you feel free to release yourself into the trust and shelter of the other person’s soul. This recognition is described in a beautiful line from Pablo Neruda: “You are like nobody since I love you.” This art of love discloses the special and sacred identity of the other person.
— John O’Donohue from Anam Cara: A Book of Celtic Wisdom
The greatest thing you can do for another being is to provide the unconditional love that comes from making contact with that place in them that is beyond conditions, which is just pure consciousness, pure essence. That is, once we acknowledge each other as existing, just being here, just being, then each of us is free to change optimally. If I can just love you because here we are, then you are free to grow as you need to grow.
— Ram Dass from Grist for the Mill
This is the first, the wildest and the wisest thing I know: that the soul exists and is built entirely out of attentiveness.
— Mary Oliver