The Tenderness of Being Human

“Ours is not the task of fixing the entire world all at once, but of stretching out to mend the part of the world that is within our reach. Any small, calm thing that one soul can do to help another soul, to assist some portion of this poor suffering world, will help immensely…One of the most calming and powerful actions you can do to intervene in a stormy world is to stand up and show your soul. Soul on deck shines like gold in dark times.”— Clarissa Pinkola Estes

“How are you?” The texts fly back and forth. “How is your heart?” “How are you doing today?” “How can I support you?” “I love you.” 

I am holding onto these words by dear Dr. Estes: “We are needed, that is all we can know. And though we meet resistance, we more so will meet great souls who will hail us, love us and guide us, and we will know them when they appear. Didn't you say you were a believer? Didn't you say you pledged to listen to a voice greater? Didn't you ask for grace? Don't you remember that to be in grace means to submit to the Voice greater? You have all the resource you need to ride any wave, to surface from any trough.”

Didn't you say you were a believer? Didn't you ask for grace? Yes. And again, yes. I've been blessed with an immense and mysterious peace within a storm that feels larger than life. But I have to tell you, as the world crashes in on itself, I've felt ashamed for being at peace. And I don't know if I'm apologizing for being ashamed of it or apologizing for actually having peace, as if my peace could take something away from you.

But you want to know something? I do know what it's like to be afraid. 

I know what the cold steel of fear feels like, of being so afraid of world events and being deceived by the antichrist that I would shake in my bed and cry hot tears into my pillow—at age seven. My formative years were devoted to an incredibly fear-based approach to life following a flavor of fundamentalism that taught I would likely, someday, be tortured for my faith. Possibly burned alive, boiled in oil, or at least ripped away from my family and sent to a concentration camp run by Nazis, the Illuminati and the devil. This fear helped reinforce an unconventional way of life: become as self-sufficient as possible, follow a literal interpretation of the Bible, live off the grid, be undocumented (and therefore untrackable), follow strict patriarchal roles of men and women in the home, learn exactly how to think and what to believe, and much more. I learned to be rigorously judgmental on the stand against evil. Daily we scrutinized and judged whatever came along: media, government, food distributors, school systems, churches, local officials, doctors, modern medicine, banks, books, messages and music on the radio, news sources controlled by an “agenda,” clothes, careers, personal choices, other people—their hearts, intentions, beliefs, lifestyles, choices and motivations; those who had Internet, who used cell phones, who sent their kids to public school, who dyed their hair, who “didn't want to know the truth,” who didn't use herbs or alternative medicine, who were “trapped in the world,” who took advantage of modern conveniences, who owned a checking account, who went to (or even encouraged) college or higher education, women who moved away from home before they got married, those who were caught up in “the system,” who went to big mega churches or used birth control, people from other religions and faiths, parents who hired a babysitter for special date nights, anyone who was “tolerant,” which meant soft on sin, and anyone who was not like us.

Of course one long run-on paragraph can't begin to describe the depths and intensity of a fear-based religious lifestyle, especially as lived by one who tried hard to get it perfect, like she did with everything—miles of hand-stitched hems, sister-mothering nearly a dozen younger brothers and sisters, keeping the faith, being afraid. I embodied fear like I was made of it, and I can wholeheartedly say I am healed now but the memory is still there. It's like being forced to hug someone who has tobacco-stained teeth, what's left of them, and foam on the edges of his mouth, and who likes to tickle young girls and inform you that you'll live with him when you turn eighteen, God said. And now you can't get the smell off you, you can still remember it, the musty smell of his hug, the probe of his fingers between your ribs and the rotten heat of those words. It's the taste. The smell. The sweat. The way panic turns your body cold and then flushes it with heat, the stay-and-fight. No, run. No, wait. Freeze. A million neurons firing in the brain. Eyes darting, looking for a way out. Despair, cornered. Scalding fury. Blind, burning rage which eventually simmers down into a nice, manageable sort of doubt. 

My prayer-mantra: fear becomes praise in my veins.

You can navigate these times rooted in a love-based life. I'm seeing this now. Hearing the doomsday theories, witnessing international horrors and seeing with my own eyes what happens when simmering undercurrents of hatred and evil are at last brought to light, and the world recoils in shock—I am looking terror in the eyes and saying simply, “I am not afraid.” I am saying this to the little girl within who would have crumbled into the depths. Perhaps I would not have known how healed I am if it weren't for this, and perhaps without it I wouldn't need to know. But when the world as you know it shatters and you recognize the language and memory of clammy skin, paralyzing fright and tobacco-stained teeth, this is something to hold onto. 

I've come to believe that the dark guests in our lives are here to hold space for all the truth to come. Fear. Anxiety. Insecurity. They create vast hollows for peace, trust, love—and our lifelong truthwork is to fill and be filled. Huge pipelines chiseled by fear can become overflowing tributaries of peace. Are you afraid, my love? Really, really afraid? All of that fear-space will one day hold immense, unfathomable love. The bigger your anxiety, the bigger is your capacity for peace. Those grooves are well-worn. You who are stretched out, sagging and exhausted by the intensity and depth of your fear, you are being expanded to hold so much love you wouldn't even believe it now. Have courage, darling. It is a mystery that cannot be explained, but in all the upheaval, hold onto your soul. Grace is waiting. 

“...Our hollowing becomes our hallowing: we are made empty like a womb, a well, a sacred space, a field that will one day hold roots and stems and living things. We can be like glimmering Tibetan bowls—holding emptiness and holding song.”—Hillary M. from Dear Artist

So, what to do with this peace? I'm still finding my way, fumbling for sensitivity, humility, and praying for wisdom in all things. I do not take the blessing of healing for granted. I am well aware of how panic, fear and anxiety overtake the ones embodied with it. 

I know, because that was me. What would have helped me then? What could've been said that I would actually hear? Already suspicious and faithful, not much, so I was way beyond mainstream platitudes—have faith. Trust. It'll all be okay. In fact, sometimes words are too much. I've been guilty of it; you want to help, you don't know what to say, so you ramble and ramble searching for phrases that give hope. Inside you think, ugh why did I just say that? And yet if you don't say anything at all, others won't know where you stand. They will think you don't care. It's messy and intricate, this being human. This being human with other humans. It's messy, intricate, and beautiful.

Over the last few days I've re-acquainted myself with presence. I've left my little nest and ventured into the world with more tenderness and more intention, looking for eyes to meet mine, savoring simple pleasures, noticing soul-connections in the ordinary and mundane: 

“This is the best pie!” exclaimed the cashier at Trader Joe's. “I just had some in the back!”

“Sorry, ma'am,” said the woman walking the dog who was jumping all over me. 

I could have stayed at that table for hours, sipping old coffee, because the wind was soft and the light just perfect. 

And then, the conversations. Oh my heart. The reaching out. Reaching in. Making me laugh. Making me cry. Meeting others in the messy intersection of grace and grief, all awkward and beautiful—me, clumsily articulating; you with your YES; and you with your warmth; and you with your courage and tender truth; and you with your heart so kind and soft. 

One of the most calming and powerful actions you can do to intervene in a stormy world is to stand up and show your soul.

I'm holding on to these words by a sweet friend who texted me in a moment of my distress—

“Every silent and tearful prayer, every anguished cry—is evidence that we are not alone, and are all doing the best we can. Retweets, and tender smiles to strangers in the grocery store—that is activism. That is love. That is change. There is great power in embracing our humanity. Being willing to see, to love, to care, to encourage is an infinite reservoir of power that can fuel catalysts for change. Without these, humanity loses. Not only for those around you, but those who see your witness. Who notice your smile, your caring & your respect. Sometimes that means loving and caring for yourself, which can be just as powerful. If we never recharge our selves/courage/love, how can we expect the people to remember their worth, and their power?”—Cassandra Aswani

Could it really be as simple as this? Reminding one other of our humanity. Through tender courtesies that say “I see you and you are worthy.”

I think yes.