Excerpt from East Coker in Four Quartets by TS Eliot
You say I am repeating
Something I have said before.
I shall say it again.
Shall I say it again?
In order to arrive there,
To arrive where you are, to get from where you are not,
You must go by a way wherein there is no ecstasy.
In order to arrive at what you do not know
You must go by a way which is the way of ignorance.
In order to possess what you do not possess
You must go by the way of dispossession.
In order to arrive at what you are not
You must go through the way in which you are not.
And what you do not know is the only thing you know
And what you own is what you do not own
And where you are is where you are not.
I’ll be honest.
Most of the time, I have no idea what I’m doing. In life, in my work, in relationships, as a mentor, facilitator, daughter, auntie, sister, cousin, friend, wife. I just show up and pray that it is enough and that the Spirit that moves through me will guide me towards whatever is required of me.
And when there is suffering, deep suffering? When someone I love is hurting? I know nothing.
I float in a sort of alphabet soup of know-nothingness and pray that the right letter noodles pass by me so I can grab them to form the right words. Some kind of sentence. Something to help me know what the right thing is to say to help make it better.
Being relational creatures is a baffling thing, isn’t it? We’re built for it. Wired for it. But our culture and societal norms, our technology and the perpetual echo chamber of the internet, seems to have made the decency and relatability of being human both less decent and somehow less relatable. We’ve always been a divisive culture but it seems that both the overwhelming array of choices and access to unlimited information coupled with the increasing divide between the have and have-nots and a dying middle class has made us sleepwalkers in our own lives.
The systems and institutions that we once put our trust in—or maybe never trusted but were forced to live within in order to just get by—are under scrutiny, as they should be. They are in many ways crumbling but when the foundations of those systems and institutions are rotten and a whole new generation of people wake up to find that their American dream is really just a nightmare for so many others, what are they left with? How do they address their hurt and the hurt of so many others?
And that’s just at a macro-level, never mind the micro-level:
Because right now, someone you love might be waiting for a biopsy result. Someone else you love may have just lost a loved one to substance use disorder. Someone else may be dealing with the mortality of their aging parents and making hard decisions about their long-term care.
Right now, someone you love may be struggling with suicidal ideation. Or processing Complex PTSD. Maybe working through a divorce. And someone else may be using cover up and powder to hide where she “walked into a door” last night.
Real people that you know. Who may be sitting next to you or across from you or are in this virtual circle right now.
Or maybe it is you.
Right now, you may be the one suffering—struggling with chronic depression, an illness, a break-up, stressed about how to cover your bills this month, or perhaps it’s something seemingly less acute. Perhaps you are holding the melancholy at bay as you reconcile the life you once had—or dreamed of having—with the unknown future of the rest of your life. Or as I like to call it “my quarterly existential crisis.”
Suffering is all around us. It’s part of the human condition. We all experience it. We are all intimate with the landscape of sadness, fear, and melancholic yearning. We have—at the very least—all been teenagers. And yet when we’re in it, really in the shit of it? Why does it have to feel so damn lonely?
I think about this alot. I spend a lot of time trying to understand why something that is a common thread among all of us—suffering—is also the thing that can cause us to feel the most isolated. The most alone. As a fellow human, I have experienced tremendous loss and consequently incredible suffering and loneliness as a result. I have felt isolated and confused in my grief, my sorrow, my sadness, my guilt. I have ached for understanding and relief.
I have yearned for someone to just hold me, tell me it’s going to be okay. Ask me if I would like a cup of tea—preferably not chamomile—and make me feel normal for a moment without trying to fix me or cheer me up. Not try to gloss over my feelings or take them away from me, but just be with me as I learn how to be with my suffering.
I want someone equipped with a surfboard so they can ride the wave with me rather than try and control the ocean.
That is—in all truth—why I became a minister. I wanted to devote myself to the biggest thing in my life with the seemingly quietest voice: Spirit. God. The Great Mystery. I wanted to try and understand its ineffable and numinous power to see if I could make sense of why there is such suffering and pain in a world that also contains such abundant beauty. I wanted to learn how to become a surfer myself so I could stop feeling so overwhelmed by the undertow that has so often made me feel like I was drowning.
And in this search for meaning—through my years of training and through my own experiences of suffering and of holding space for others in their struggles—I have realized something profoundly simple and wildly important: there are times when there is nothing to be done other than to sit and listen. To hold a space with Spirit for suffering, confusion, grief and loss. To wait without expectation or any kind of knowing other than knowing that the person that I’m sitting with matters. That their life matters. That their grief or confusion or uncertainty matters.
And that is so counter-culture to so many of us that when we encounter suffering, we often do anything but simply sit and listen compassionately and with love. Suffering is so uncomfortable for us. Our seeming inclination is to either ignore it completely or to try and jump in unprompted to fix it or offer solutions to make it end. Our value is so wrapped up in our doing rather than our being that if we’re not actively trying to solve something or power our way through it, then we clearly are not helping and so we might as well not bother.
And yet it is this very attempt at trying to solve, fix, carry, or cure without invitation that so often deepens the feelings of loneliness for those who are struggling.
“If it were that easy,” they wonder, “don’t you think I would have already tried it?”
And so we pull back because they pull back, thinking they just want to be left alone when really they just don’t want to have to justify or explain their struggle to you.
And so our invitation is to do nothing other than to be there and listen. It is to know nothing until we know it. And only then.
Yes. It’s scary to let go of our agendas and show up as an empty container. Because what if I do it wrong?
But that’s the secret: the fear of doing it wrong? It lives in the belief that there is something that you have the power to fix.
You see, when someone you love is suffering and you stop believing you have the power to solve it or fix it or take it away, when you stop believing that you have the power to carry it or cure it, a whole world of possibility opens up because you’ll suddenly realize that by simply being and not doing, your caring is enough.
That you are enough just as you are—just you, just your presence, without tinctures and salves. Without remedies and solutions. Without fussing and fixing. By listening without an agenda, by letting someone else know that you are thinking of them without an expectation of a response, or by offering a sense of normalcy in a sea of surreality, your enoughness lets the other person know that they matter.
That they are enough—even in their own messy way—especially in their own messy way.
That in your know-nothing-but-I’m-still-here-ness you are giving permission to your beloved that their own know-nothing-but-I’m-still-here-ness is totally okay.
If you want to be a Mighty Kindness in the world, there are lots of things you can do. Sure. At the macro-level, there is a whole world that needs our kindness, our voices, our action.
But when it comes to the struggle itself, the suffering itself—unless someone asks you very specifically for something—there is often nothing to be done.
Because kindness cannot prevent suffering.
It cannot cure it or carry it.
It does presume to know how to fix it or take it away.
But it can cushion it. It can offer a soft place to land, to rest, or heal.
It can offer presence.
It can listen and hold and witness.
When someone you love feels lost at sea and their light is flickering and fading, your kindness acts as that quiet steady light on a dark night of the soul, flashing its beacon into the foggy distance, letting that lonely sailor know,
And when they land, having navigated that rocky shore, you can simply ask with the deepest kindness and compassion,
“May I just sit here, beside you, and love you?”