Monday, January 18, 2016

THE LANGUAGE OF PRESENCE


C.S. Lewis, one of my all time favorite human beings (whom I have never met, but feel I know) writes about a friend who was truly there for him when his beloved wife, Joy, died of cancer.  A renowned academic from Oxford University, Lewis had many friends and colleagues.  When she died, many were there for him, and all were, undoubtedly, well-meaning.  They visited and talked with him, offering them their condolences and words of understanding.  Those who shared his Christian faith offered him words of encouragement.  But it would seem, according to Lewis, all of these words, lovely and articulate as they may have been, left him empty.

It was a friend who stopped by his home one day several weeks after his wife's death, who truly sustained him.  He didn't say anything extraordinary or profound.  In fact, he didn't say anything at all, he just sat down beside Lewis while he grieved, not saying a word, just listening with him in the silence; filling the space with his presence, offering him his own human "being-ness."  No words of apology.  Not one offer of understanding and encouragement.  He just sat with him, bearing the heavy burden of loss in that room, feeling the emptiness with him, allowing the melancholy silence to encircle them both.

Lewis writes that this was the friend who truly understood--who was the blessing to him in his darkest hours.  The loneliness was terrifying, but this friend was there to feel it alongside him.  Two friends, separated by experience, the only sign of life their shared breathing in a room together. Lewis said that volumes were spoken by his friend in the quiet that day... they were, in essence, joined by the language of presence.

In his book entitled A Grief Observed, Lewis writes:  "Imagine a man in total darkness.  He thinks he
is in a cellar or dungeon.  Then there comes a sound.  He thinks it might be a sound from far off--waves or wind-blown trees or cattle half a mile away.  And if so, it proves he's not in a cellar, but free, in the open air. Or it may be a much smaller sound close at hand--a chuckle of laughter.  And it so, there is a friend just beside him in the dark."

I have experienced this quite precious phenomenon just a few times in my life, once, when I was just out of college, enduring what I thought would be the worst possible heartbreak of my life.  Nothing seemed like it would ever hold any joy for me ever again.  I had lost the love of my life, a young man who had been my best friend in high school, and my sweetheart for five years beyond, and now, it was over.  I didn't want to hear that I would love again, or that everything would be alright in time.  I didn't want to be told that what I was experiencing was nothing new, but the age old right of passage experienced by nearly every young woman at LEAST once in her life.  I certainly didn't want to hear that familiar adage: "This may be the first heart break, but it certainly won't be the last."

Words are powerful, there is no doubt.  They can help, heal, hinder and harm.  They can also really make you mad--often times when they come with good intentions.  But that day, my good friend and apartment mate Bryn came home from work, saw me crying quietly, and said nothing.  She went to the kitchen, poured two glasses of wine (I was 23 so it was okay!) sat one in front of me, and then sat down next to me with her glass.  She said nothing.  No "I'm sorry," or "That really sucks," or even "He'll be sorry one day." She just sat there next to me, with one arm around my shoulder drinking her wine, and letting me cry.  I'm not sure how long we were there, a half hour, or maybe two, but when I started to talk about the sorrow I felt, and how I couldn't imagine being happy, she just listened.  She held my hand and sometimes nodded in agreement, but she said NOTHING.  She just was.  She was there, like a priest, I guess, listening to me pour out my heart...waiting.   She seemed to understand that truth that sometimes when we try to comfort someone in their suffering, we belittle it, and that is something no one needs in their darkest of moments.

When I'd had enough, she just said, "Let's go out and see a movie.  I'll buy you some cheesecake."
 That was it.  One sentence.  Not much wisdom to be found there, but there was truly an ocean of comfort in her just being there.  Words I don't know how to say and meanings I cannot define were spoken in her presence.

We are human beings, not human doings.  Yet, in the fast-paced, hyper-drive demands of life, we don't act like it.  To be appreciated and honored by someone's mere presence is truly nothing short of a miracle.  We are.  We exist.  And more than that, we co-exist, and when words fail, or there are no words that work to comfort our grief and our pain, it is the presence of one we love that offers all the communication we need.  It's like its own separate language...one that is felt rather than heard.

When my father died, I remember coming home from the hospital, and suddenly finding myself unable to breathe.  His "gone-ness" was overwhelming me.  It felt like a wave was crashing over my head, over and over again, not allowing me a second to process what I had just lost that day.  I couldn't get my head above the water of grief.  It was too much.  I panicked and was hysterical.  I didn't know what to do. That man who had cared for me, taught me, carried me; the man who had so often been my strength and security was gone.  In a world that often seemed like a dark and bottomless void, he was the island. Now, where was my footing?  To whom could I go for that wise, sound, logical and loving guidance?

It was my husband this time who was there.  Somehow, he knew.  He had walked through losing his father, and he knew what I needed to hear more than anything:  Nothing.  He knew there were no words that could make this even remotely close to better.  He helped me up off the floor, took me over to sit, and he just held me and stroked my hair while I cried and shook.  It's not something I like to talk about or share, being so weak and completely vulnerable, but I remember feeling like more than I had ever read or heard in my entire life was being said in that moment.  It was almost as if through him, my father was reaching out to me.  His silence was my comfort--a lighthouse, if you will, reminding me that there was secure footing, and even though this would be one of the worst days of my life, I could still stand on solid ground with confidence.

What does this mean for you?  You are all very young, and I desperately hope that you have not yet experienced a sorrow that eats you alive and leaves you unable to breathe.  But if you have, well, maybe there is some bittersweet gift to be found in that.  Perhaps you are stronger--wiser--and more than that, you may one day find yourself in the role of C.S. Lewis's friend; understanding that when you find a loved one drowning in the darkness of despair, you cannot give them the "right words."  In fact, you won't offer words at all.  You will just be--sharing their air, drinking in the sadness and hopelessness right along with them.  And then they will understand how powerful we truly are, just in our existence, and how there is a wisdom and a truth in the silence.

In his article entitled The Art of Presence, Woods summarizes it perfectly:  "What seems to be needed
here is the art of presence--to perform tasks without trying to control or alter the elemental situation. Allow nature to take its course.  Grant the sufferers the dignity of their own process.  Let them define meaning.  Sit simply through moments of pain and uncomfortable darkness.  Be practical, mundane, simple and direct."

What is the language of presence to you?  How does it communicate with no words or sound? You don't have to share anything too personal if you don't wish, but this is a language class. There are more and sometimes better ways to speak than with words.  I would love to hear about yours...

There is a sweet music in the silence,
if you really listen,
closely,
carefully, 
deliberately,
you will hear....(Caraway, 2007)