I attended a funeral service on Saturday. Toward the end of the service the presider, a Catholic priest operating well “outside the box,” asked those assembled to begin an a capella version of the Beatles’ song Let It Be (the lyrics were printed in the program for the funeral). Fortunately, a talented singer (my wife!) was able to get everyone started, singing deeply and with great clarity those lovely opening words: “When I find myself in times of trouble, mother Mary comes to me, speaking words of wisdom, Let It Be.”
Times of trouble come easily some days. Mostly those times of trouble are tolerable, times when things go wrong or there’s too much to do in the day, or a project we planned on did not pan out. We feel stressed out, maybe a bit overwhelmed, but with practice, some mindfulness and acceptance, and patience, we’re usually able to dig ourselves out of the hole. But it doesn’t always happen like that.
Sometimes the times of trouble are not tolerable. We learn that a beloved parent has cancer. Or we learn that our child is ill. Or someone has died. We did not get the job we hoped for; perhaps the job that we needed. A friend has a positive test for a terrible illness. Another loved one has died from AIDS and its complications.
Sometimes the times of trouble are threats to our own integrity, whether physical, spiritual, or emotional. We’ve received a terrifying diagnosis. Or realized that we have aged or grown ill and lost an ability. A friend or an ally turns against us in an hour of need. Or we open the paper and learn that our spiritual leaders have compromised their own integrity, again and again. Another person has died in a suicide bombing, or another drone attack has sparked riots against America. The Koran is burnt in a country far away, and we watch images of rage across our screen. Or a teen, walking in his father’s neighborhood, wearing a hoodie, has died needlessly.
These worst times of trouble usually don’t have any quick fixes. Mostly they seem to have no fixes at all, only duration, suffering, and aftermath. As I was taught years ago by the wisest 11 year old I ever met, “you don’t get over these things, you just learn how to live with them.”
But there are people who are skilled at helping us through our times of trouble. VERY special people. Today I had lunch with a very special person, one who has endured and continues to endure a time of trouble. She shared openly with me how difficult her time of trouble has been, and in her sharing we both realized something important. The people who escort us across the expanse of our time of trouble may not be the ones we expected them to be! That was unsettling to consider, at first. After all, should it not be my closest friends and confidants who can best help me, know me, be with me? But then we realized that we do not choose our friends based on their capacity to tolerate our darkest times of trouble. I’ll say that again in another way: we choose our friends for a lot of very good reasons, but usually not because they have demonstrated any particular ability to be able to help us to tolerate our times of trouble.
And here’s another truth that we realized together: It may be someone you never expected, someone you don’t even know that well, who comes into your life and travels through those times of trouble by your side! Consider this possibility. Some people are better able than others to remain with us when we are suffering. Some people just have that skill, an ability to experience your pain and their own felt sympathetic pain and not run away, whether figuratively or literally. I’ve met people like this, people who remain still and silent on the inside, while I’m sharing with them my fear or remorse or anger or shame, or whatever suffering has come my way. People with this internal stillness are rare, but stillness is a quality that can be cultivated.
But there are people who stays present with you even in the midst of their own flood of emotions: the fighters among us. And this is a mark of courage, to be able to stay present even when it hurts to do so, because it is the right thing to do. The feelings may overwhelm these people, but they stay with us, nonetheless. They may not feel that stillness inside, but somewhere deep within them lies the conviction that the difficulty of remaining present does not matter; someone else’s well being is more important, in this moment, than mine. Like the person with stillness within, these people are a treasure.
I believe that the quality of mindfulness is the essence of the stillness of the compassionate heart AND the fighter determined to remain present. Mindful people recognize the upwelling of emotion within a moment of its initiation, and, no matter how unpleasant the emotion may be, make space for it. Accept the pain. Observe it with great neutrality; simply experiencing it as emotional pain that is telling me something important, something I NEED to know in this moment: that this person with me is suffering and needs connection, needs my compassion. Lacking this mindful awareness, one quickly becomes terribly overwhelmed by the flood of emotions, a flood that tells every fiber of my being to flee, to get safe, to find a way to neutralize these feelings. I cannot find fault with any person who cannot tolerate these feelings. It is hard to choose to stay when your body says “go!” so strongly.
Each of us can cultivate this quality, but it takes practice. That’s why we sit, every day if possible. A baseball player has to take batting practice over and over again, just as a musician must repeat the lessons learned from a lifetime of diligent study. But more than the practice in the formal setting, we must practice everyday mindfulness if we are to become adept at staying with “what is,” instead of escaping to “how we would like it to be instead.” And if you find this capacity to remain present growing, don’t be surprised at who you are called to sit with. In the same way that you may be surprised at who is able to sit with you when you are suffering, you may be just as surprised to find yourself sitting with someone suffering who you barely know. But it may be you who is most able to remain there, compassionately helping that person through those times of trouble. And if it does turn out to be you who can remain still with the suffering soul, take Sir Paul McCartney’s advice to heart: Let It Be.