I sit in the early-morning light filtering through the bamboo blinds, warm cup of coffee in hand, admiring my 17 month-old son as he continues to explore the world around him—the dog, the cats (their tails, especially), the books on the shelves, the shoes by the door, the various gates blocking access to the various staircases, the trucks and blocks and dolls on the floor. He is completely at ease in his own body. Daring. Fearless. Independent in a way that both thrills me and breaks my heart.
He is growing up, this little man of mine. He walks, he almost-talks, he has a wonderful sense of humour. I still breastfeed him, but he loves to feed himself now, his small but capable hands shoving fistfuls of food in his mouth and chewing carefully with his gums and his eight tiny teeth. He dances. He waits for the perfect song to come on the radio and then he dances, moving his arms and legs and hips in ways that amaze me (where did he learn that?) He is entirely content and all but ignores me. This is his time, his own morning adventure, his own growth and his own learning, and I am but the witness (for which I am grateful, for this is my time, too).
But, every morning, there is a moment when that all changes. It happens when he stands too quickly, from his daddy-made fort, and whacks his head on the underside of the kitchen table. It happens when he runs too eagerly after his soccer ball and trips over his own feet, falling hard on his knees. It happens when he attempts to get off the couch, slips, and lands on his bum with a thump.
The injury is always slightly different but the reaction is always the same. There is no crying, no melt down at all. There is only the freezing, the whispered “ow,” and the eyes—those big blue eyes that grow even bigger as they wait for something, something, something. Something important. Something deeply, deeply needed.
But not much of me.
There is no need, here, for my hands or my arms or my lap. There is no need for him to be picked up, rocked, and soothed. There is no need for me to fix anything, or make anything go away. There is just the need for me to see that he has fallen (or whacked his head, or thumped his bum). There is the simple need for me to acknowledge, with my eyes and my voice, that a part of him is hurting.
That’s it. That’s all he needs. A gentle recognition of his pain, no matter how minor it may be.
It’s so simple, it’s almost nothing at all. And yet, in this moment, for him, it is everything. It is what he needs to unfreeze, to keep playing and exploring and adventuring into the world around him. It is what he needs to go on.
I’ve been thinking about this a lot, in terms of my healing practice and in terms of life, in general.
I’ve been thinking about how often we encounter people who are hurting—individually and collectively—and about how quick we are to dismiss the hurt. To shove it aside. To skim over it on our way to offering advice and “solutions.” I’ve been thinking about how much better (kinder, gentler, softer) human life would be if we stopped that. If we paused a bit longer. Inhaled a bit deeper. Opened ourselves up to the broken and the tender.
If there’s one thing clinical work has taught me it’s that what people primarily want and need is not to be saved or changed or cured, but seen—seen and wholly accepted as the busted-but-still-beating hearts they are.
When we see the hurt, we honour the hurt. We honour the journey and the tumbles and the triumphs. We honour the fight and the fear and the courage. We honour the injuries and the resilience that make us all human.
We, as a society, are uncomfortable with hurt. And we are equally uncomfortable with stillness and silence. This is why when we see or hear another’s pain we rush to fill up the empty spaces with a jumble of words.
“You really need to get over it.”
“I know a great psychotherapist/counsellor/acupuncturist/healer who could help you get over it.”
“Something similar happened to me and this is what I did to get over it.”
Our intentions are good. Our heart is in the right place. We want to help. Yes, yes, yes.
But we are going about it all wrong.
We are being guided by this false notion that doing is better than being, that talking is better than listening, and that giving is better than receiving.
It is not.
We need to stop being so quick to give and learn how to receive—how to fully receive the bleeding or scabbing or scarring wounds of others, how to let them breathe a little, without choking them with good intentions.
Before we utter, “I can help you” (or any word at all), we need communicate the simple yet profoundly powerful, “I see you.” Before we rush into the brain-doing, we need to get comfortable with the heart-feeling, with the act of gently holding space for pain. This is where the healing begins.
As I sit here, observing my son, marvelling at his bravery and determination, I am reminded that we are all different, but we are all the same, too.
We are the same in the way that we toddle through life, regardless of age or experience, making a million mistakes and tripping over our own feet, again and again. We are the same in the way that we stumble and whack our heads and whack our hearts. And we are the same in the way that we freeze, when hurting, and in the way our eyes grow wide as we seek something, something, something. Something important. Something deeply, deeply needed.
Us. Each other. A shared human understanding of what it means to be hurting.
This. This is what we need—not only as toddlers, but as adult individuals, as communities, as a world—to unfreeze. To try again. To trust again. To start to heal.
This is what we need to go on.