In his book, Let Your Life Speak, Parker Palmer describes one of his bouts of serious clinical depression. He was frozen, paralyzed by sadness, completely unable to feel joy or sense beauty. Many well-meaning friends would visit and try to help, but he was completely unable to connect with them.
blessedly, there were several people, family and friends, who had the courage to stand with me in a simple and healing way. One of them was a man who, having asked my permission to do so, stopped by late every afternoon, sat me down in a chair, knelt in front of me, removed my shoes and socks, and for half an hour simply massaged my feet. He found the only place in my body where I could still experience bodily feeling—and feel connected with the human race.
He rarely spoke a word, and when he did, he never gave advice but simply mirrored my condition. He would say, “I can sense your struggle today,” or, “It feels like you are getting stronger.” I could not always respond, but his words were deeply helpful: They reassured me that I could still be seen by at least one person, life-giving knowledge in the midst of an experience that makes one feel annihilated and invisible. It is almost impossible to put into words what my friend's ministry meant to me. Perhaps it is enough to say that I now understand the Biblical stories of Jesus and his foot washings at new depth.
The poet Rilke says, “Love . . .consists in this, that two solitudes protect and border and salute each other.” That is the kind of love my friend offered. He never tried to invade my awful inwardness with false comfort or advice, but simply stood on its boundaries, modeling the respect for me and my journey— and the courage to let it be— that I myself needed if I were to endure.
Early in my college career, I went through a nasty romantic breakup that seemed to me to be the very end of the world. I look back now and I'm like, "Um, okay? And your problem was?" but at the time I thought that I would never know happiness again, ever. For months I was a complete wreck. There were shouted phone calls. There was dramatic crying. There was loud music. There was sprawling poetry on butcher paper and acrylic paintings of nude women. It wasn't a pretty picture.
My beautiful best friend, Holly, responded to all this perfectly. She rode around with me in my car in the dark while I shouted along with Alanis Morissette's "You Outta Know" at damaging decibal levels. She appreciated my frightening art. She patted my back when I sobbed until I hyperventilated. She kept a hand on my knee the time that I bawled during the three hour drive from Pocatello to Provo. She climbed into bed with me at night when I woke up crying. One night she drew me a hot bath.
Had our roles been reversed, I surely would have gotten sick of all the drama. I would have become impatient and rolled my eyes and said, "He was not that fabulous. Seriously. Get over it. You deserve so much better." But Holly was just quietly, patiently present with me in my suffering. Her quiet vigil was the thing I needed most and I will always be grateful that she was there to protect, border, and salute me during that time.
Sometimes when things are hard, you don't need someone to give you advice. You don't need someone to say anything at all. Sometimes you just need someone to sit with you while you struggle through the darkness. It's so tempting, when others are sad or hurt or angry, to try to offer comfort or well-meaning advice. But sometimes all they need to know is that you see them, that you love them, and that they're not alone.