June 13, 2010

For the Man on the Street

Last week, after finishing my blog entry on the strength of expressing sadness, I closed my computer and got ready for the day. Feeling energetically drained from the occurrences of the weeks prior, I was hyper-aware of my own emotional delicacy. In other words, I was feeling particularly self-absorbed.

As I left my apartment building in a fog, I grabbed my phone to call my mom, hoping to distract myself from my own feelings. She answered, but told me she would call me back. Ugh, I thought to myself, knowing I was now forced to be more present on my walk than I wanted. A block later, as I was about to cross the street, I caught something out of the corner of my eye. On the other side of the street, there was a man, face up, his upper body on the side walk and his legs extended into the street. Oh my God, I thought, as I quickly walked to see what was going on. Even before I could get a glimpse of him, an older Latino man threw his phone at me. "Talk to them, tell them this problem." "Ummm.." I stammered into the phone, looking down at the man for the first time and instantly having a pit form in my stomach.

--Oh God, ok, there's a man, I think he fell, his face is bloody, he is bleeding from the mouth.

--How old is he? the 911 responder asked

-45 to 50, I think.

--Is he conscious?

--Not really, I don't know, I mean he's not speaking, but he's moving his arms.

--Is he homeless? What else can you tell me about him?

--No, I don't think so. No, he's not. He, I don't know what happened, I just walked up, but I think he fell, and i think he hit his head. He's kind of shaking a little. I don't...know.

--Ok, we're sending someone.

When the 911 responder hung up, the Latino man thanked me, took his phone, and started to walk away. "Wait!" I cried after him desparetely. "No worry," he said, "ambulance will come." Then he walked away. I looked down at the man on the street. His glasses were by his side, broken. He was shaking, slightly, and for the first time he looked up at me and whispered, "please." Oh God, I thought to myself, I am not equipped to deal with this.

"It's ok, you'll be ok," I responded in a panic, "the ambulance is coming." I stood over him, torn between looking him in the eye and looking frantically around the street for the hopefully soon to be coming ambulance. Part of me wanted to touch him, but the other part shied away from such an act of intimacy with a stranger, even one that was struggling. People continued to walk by, some looking down at him inquisitively, others kept walking, looking straight ahead. A man stopped over him, "did you call the ambulance?" he asked me. "Yeah, yeah...they're coming.." I assured him.

The man then started to squirm and tried to lift his head off the ground, but quickly let it drop back onto the concrete, his head making a sick thud as it landed. It was only then that I knelt down beside him, and put my scarf under his head. The man stared straight into me, his blue eyes pleading. "Please...please..please.." he whispered again.

And then he grabbed my hand.

I took a deep breath and held his hand. It was warm. He squeezed mine. I squeezed back. A crowd was now starting to form. "This man..he is dying," someone stated knowingly. "Where is the ambulance?" another asked. I picked up the phone and called 911 again. "I'm on 7 and A, we're still waiting for the ambulance. He's not doing well. I don't know what's going on, but he needs help." "They're on their way," they stated.

15 minutes later, the ambulance arrived. I let go of the man's hand and stood over him with the rest of the crowd and watched as the ambulance put him on the stretcher. When the medics asked him his name, he could not respond. When the man was in the back, a medic picked up his broken glasses and, before we could ask any questions, jumped in the ambulance and drove off. The crowd dispersed. I stayed on the corner for a moment, trying to register everything that just happened. "I guess I'll head to work?" I asked myself, and burst into tears. Only, unlike the hour before, my tears were no longer for myself or my personal burdens. These tears were for the man on the street, whose name I did not know, whose prognosis I did not know, and whose life expectancy I did not know. These unknowns will forever remain. I would like to think, one day, I'll see him in the neighborhood walking around, and can smile at him when he passes. But perhaps, my only connection with him will forever be confined to the corner of 7th and Avenue A.

Sometimes, amidst the self-absorption of our own lives, our lives are slammed into the life of another. And in that moment, we must make a decision to use the collision to connect with that person or keep on walking. And if we choose to engage, the connection may be as subtle as a smile or a nod or as intimate as the warmth of a touch. And whether that act is enough or not will most likely remain forever indeterminable. But regardless of whether the warmth of my hand was enough for the man on the corner of 7th and Avenue A, I know that the warmth of his hand was enough for me. At least enough for me to remember the strength of the human connection and the power of the human touch. So, to the man on the street, thank you for awakening my heart. May you be healthy and well, wherever you are.

June 9, 2010

How do you really feel?

One thing I notice about myself is my inability to sit with pain. When I feel it, physically or emotionally, I want to rid myself of it. I justify distracting myself from pain, by arguing that for the benefit of my emotional health, it should pass quickly and quietly. Not only do I struggle with allowing myself to sit with pain, but I struggle with honestly sharing my pain with those outside of my family.

It is not unheard of that my closest friends will ask me a question, I'll answer, and right after they'll say, "ok, but how to you REALLY feel?" This usually results in a melting of inhibitions and an answer embodied with a deeper and more emotional response. But it takes slightly more of an effort to bring these responses to the surface. Why am I quick to share my joys, but slower to share my sorrows?

If there is an epidemic in this country, it is not the suffering itself, but the sickness of "desperate attempts to avoid suffering." We have become a society that despises pain. If it is physical, we numb it with medicine. If it is mental, we distract it with noise, internet, or tv. If it is emotional, we view it as weakness and therefore repress it in addiction, avoidance, or silence.

When people are going through a hard time and don't cry, we view them as "strong." When people are struggling and look on the bright side, we say "they have so much faith." But is rare that we look in the face of a crying person and say, "this act of crying is a true sign of courage- to feel sadness in the face of another."

Sharon Salzberg, a renowned Buddhist, noticed that as a society, we rarely are capable of expressing our feelings of pain with others. We often don't respond to "how are you?" with an answer of "I'm sad; I'm hurt; I'm suffering; I'm lonely; I am discouraged." Though these sentiments may later express themselves through further prying, often these feeling remain unnamed.

Salzberg noticed that our society has really only come to accept one word as a socially suitable means of expressing any type of suffering: "stressed." If we feel inadequate at work, if a close friend has ill-health, if our family is going through some struggles, if we do not have time to do that which we love--we tell the world, without hesitation, that "we're stressed." And those who listen can share that they too feel stressed. For whatever reason this word is easier to share. Perhaps, we view "being stressed" as more circumstantial, stemming from external sources, and it is therefore easier to admit since it avoids any commentary on an internal state. Perhaps, it's easier to share because it broadly means "I have a lot on my plate," but it is not specific in that no one has to know the true root of our suffering. But regardless for the reasons of its acceptability, it has become the universal word for pain.

Anger too is much more of an acceptable emotion. And not only are we not scared to share it, but we often find it empowering. Even though anger is merely a different manifestation of pain, we embrace. Our expression of anger hides personal suffering by blaming the pain on the act of another, and, therefore, we are not viewed as weak. When we witness acts or words of anger, rarely do we look at the person with a sense of compassion and think, "here, is a person of true suffering." Rather we think, "I wonder (what someone else did) to make this person angry; I wonder what occurrence (outside the person's control) made this person angry?" Similar to stress, the expression of anger frees the person experiencing it from having to delve into his/her true feelings of hurt and pain with others and with themselves.

How can we be better embrace our feelings of sadness? How can we learn to experience it, instead of fighting it? How can we learn to invite it in when it arises as opposed to trying to distract ourselves from it? Perhaps the mere acknowledgment of the pain is where it must start. Perhaps, when it seeps in, we must say, "hello there sadness, here you are." Perhaps we must sit with it and observe how it feels; not trying to fight it, but trying to engage in it-hand in hand. And perhaps when people ask how we are and we feel it, we can have the strength to look people in the eye and share, "right now, I am sad. But that is ok." And perhaps in doing so, this will be a true act of strength. And then, sadness will no longer be a weakness.

June 3, 2010

Two-word prayer.

there are days when my prayers only get as far as

a deep sigh that exhales "dear God..."

but, sometimes, that seems to be enough