My job as a psychologist is not what probably comes to mind when you think of psychotherapy. For a good chunk of each day, I spend time with people in the hospital dealing with a cancer diagnosis. Most have just had what will turn out to be life-saving surgery or chemotherapy. But many of my inpatients are hospitalized because their health is too precarious for them to be home.
It was one of those days in the hospital.
It seemed like every room I walked into had some heavy things going on. Big decisions to make. Incredible questions to answer. Uncertain futures to predict.
There was the overall feeling-- life is slipping away too quickly, time is running out. Mind is clear, body is failing. Relationships are being torn apart too soon. There are still dreams of memories to be made.
It doesn't seem fair.
As a health care provider, the known path is to build a wall. Don't get too close. Don't get to personal. Don't feel their fears, don't fall into their arms. As an old book once dictated, "always remember, you're not the patient". Mutter some line about hope and positive thinking and quickly leave the room. It's "them", we are "us".
That doesn't seem to help.
The supposedly riskier path is the uncharted territory-- at least in health care-- of the open heart. Let's step into this darkest part of this cave, together. The person I am with is too sick and weak, perhaps also overwhelmed by pain, to navigate it alone. Here, we can use the light I can shine to illuminate these dark walls, scatter the scary shadows. Let's feel out the path, together.
Into this space of light in darkness, unexpected things begin to happen. Time seems to stop, even for a moment. When you come out of a conversation in which you've had a wall up around your heart, time seems to be going too fast. But that wall isn't just for the patient, it very quickly takes over your life. It amplifies this sense of powerlessness in the face of suffering.
It seeks to perpetuate itself. It seeks out unhealthy coping to numb the natural state of existential terror that is life. Alcohol, junk food, tuning out instead of turning on the experience of life and relationships.
The open heart that allows the light of compassion to shine-- into that space, time become irrelevant. Life feels deeper because it's being deeply felt. Coming out of these conversations feels like connecting to something much, much larger than just another person. It feels like tapping into something much grander, something cosmic.
I suspect this is what Martin Buber was referring to as "I and Thou". It's a sacred space, even if God doesn't feel present or caring. This is the opening that brings healing.
It also seeks to perpetuate itself. But this is about turning on to life. Light seeks light.
Once ignited sufficiently, the light of compassion seeks to keep itself burning. For me, this is the motivation to wake up early, meditate for an hour, work out. Keep that light lit. I might not know why I will need it on any given day, but it needs to stay lit.
The darkness is all around all of us. If we don't ignite the light within, the darkness will take over.