This phrase has nestled into my mind. And steadily, over the weeks since I first read it, it's become a mantra of sorts. "To feel held and heard." It's simple and beautiful. And it haunts me in a way that unlocks many years' worth of emotion.
I have a cousin whom I strongly admire. I always have, since we were little. She always demonstrated an effortless cool that was at once fascinating and intimidating so, I tended to keep my distance. In our adulthood we haven't been in much contact but, I do keep up with her goings-on via the ever-present social media. It was here I first read these words in the context of her expressing deep fulfillment and satisfaction in her career as a tattoo artist.
"I value my work," she wrote, "and I feel good about taking the time to make each client feel held and heard and to create exactly what they desire to the best of my ability."
There it was, stated in the most elegant and perfect way. She crystallized for me the very essence of a soul's mission: what I know I absolutely must do in this lifetime. She also revealed the very thing my heart craves most desperately.
You see, I have this thing about being heard. It's kind of embarrassing the way it creeps up and overwhelms me at times. Even as I write this, the lump in my throat is substantial enough to put pressure behind my eyes. My logical functions remind me that everyone, at some time or another, fails to receive and fully understand the communications of others. We fail to empathize. I am no exception. Even so, a certain irrational panic wells up in me when this occurs. It is particularly acute in instances where I'm vulnerable, where I speak up because I'm susceptible to injury, be it physical or emotional, and I'm asking - because I have to - for help. If the response is dismissive, or somehow indicates a lack of receptivity, something primal in me is triggered. But, since I live in a culture where such feelings are disdainfully disregarded, I've learned to be reserved about their expression.
Imagine, if you will, a man with a peanut allergy. What is food to another is fatal to him, so much so that even trace amounts of the oil can trigger anaphylactic shock. Plenty of people, the vast majority of us in fact, have no problem enjoying these tiny, naturally occurring and seemingly harmless things. When he speaks up to inform others of his need - not preference, not inclination, not even choice, but actual life-or-death need - to be protected from them, he entrusts those with whom he speaks with a share in his well-being. That is an act of personal responsibility, humility and trust. It's the kind of thing that really must be heard. Merely scraping the peanut sauce off the pad thai is not going to cut it.
That's the kind of trepidation I feel much of the time but, work very hard to conceal. So, to read my cousin's statement, a warm declaration of willingness to hear, to receive that trust from her fellow human beings and to take pride in living up to it ... tears of relief burst forth spontaneously.
There have been two other occasions in my life where similar eruptions occurred.
My best friend from college was in the passenger seat of my old jeep. I don't know where we were going or how we landed on the subject but, she casually related a conversation she'd had with a mutual friend. As is commonly the case among 20-somethings, there had been some unflattering commentary in my absence on the topic of my most recent romantic dalliance. I managed to brush it off for the most part and thanked her for letting me know. But, then she related her response.
"I told him, 'If you took your level of frustration right now," she said, "and multiplied it by a thousand, you might just scratch the surface of what Forest is feeling.'"
I don't recall much after that but, I'm fairly certain that the tears erupted from my face with enough force to hit the windshield. Such a relief, such an unexpected and refreshing thought that someone really did look out for me beyond what was convenient. My college friend could easily have stayed quiet, changed the subject or - as is so often the case with people - just agreed for the sake of getting along. But, she didn't. My feelings meant something more to her than that. They meant enough for her to rock the boat in my defense, even when I wasn't around and to do so did not serve her.
The other occasion was more recent. A friend recommended me for a production job on which he was working. That in and of itself is a truly gracious act but, it pales in comparison to what he did when the job went sour. The manager was a nightmare and the venue owner was worse. They had no compunction about openly berating the crew, changing directives after the fact and throwing people under the proverbial bus to mask their own incompetence. It's a wonder I made it through the duration of the show.
Thereafter, in a similar circumstance of folks talking behind other folks' backs, my friend fielded criticism regarding my job performance. And though my contract was completed and he was still on the payroll, he stood up for me without hesitation.
"Forest was great at her job," he'd contended, "but after the way you treated her, I'll never recommend another one of my friends to work for you."
As strong and sturdy a man as he is, I recall knocking him back several inches when I hugged him.
It's like a rescue that one never dares to hope for. To have one's feelings, thoughts, concerns and - in some cases - safety taken seriously, that's what I experience in these moments. That's what it means to be "heard and held." To me, each of these people is heroic in a very real sense. Though we, as members of contemporary Western society, are trained away from such tender notions, I still cherish them. I see how very precious they are, not only for their rarity but for their enormous capacity to heal. And I defy their being devalued.
It matters when we take it upon ourselves to honor the needs of someone else, even when they do not match our own needs. Rather than choosing to dissociate ourselves and remain safely in the world of "not my problem," we can affect such powerful healing when we take seriously a concern that is not our own. It is my sincere hope that each of us endeavors to hear and to hold one another in some small way. Each time we do, it adds to the sum of unity and mutual respect in the world.
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