My job is listening. Talking. Listening. Talking. Day in and day out for two decades. Something I’ve done a million times it seems. Usually, I’m alone in an office with someone who is sharing something deeply personal and painful. To be in the presence of human suffering is a private, intimate exchange.
Being in lockdown, quarantining, living and working remotely for a year plus, has been a different kind of work. Now I find myself talking on a screen, sometimes craning to hear what a person is sharing, and confronting poor internet notifications and dropped calls. My clients are sitting in cars, on closet floors, walking and talking in a wind tunnel of breath and wind as I grasp to catch a phrase. Not work as usual. It’s been a blessing and a curse. More flexibility? Less intimacy? Just different.
My job is still listening. Talking. Listening. Talking.
That’s not all I do.
“Mom, you laugh a lot,” my daughter said one day. “I hear you laughing all day long.” She seemed a bit miffed about it.
“Really? What do you hear?” Usually, I am the brunt of family jokes for being too awkward, serious or clueless, and hardly ever funny. Let’s just say never funny.
“Well, I heard you say something to someone who seems to be obsessing over whether she’s gay when she believes she’s not.”
So much for my white noise fan and the best practices in my field. I was horrified. Granted, I’m not sitting in a bathroom and using my shower curtain as a backdrop as one of my colleagues has had to do (she has a beautiful curtain, by the way). We’ve all had to adapt in one way or another and people are forgiving under these odd circumstances. But whatever laughter arose and words were said in that session or any others, I hope arose from a genuine exchange. But still.
As soon as you have made a thought, laugh at it.— Lao Tsu
Laughter is pain relief
On a different day my husband asked me a question about my work over slices of pizza I didn’t want but ate anyway. (Can I blame COVID for the weight gain?)
“What do you think you do?” he asked.
My husband IS a funny guy and it’s hard to know when he’s joking around. But after 25 years of marriage he’s probably sensing some discontent. Or maybe burnout. Or maybe that I need to change things up a bit. The pandemic drew a strange and nebulous shroud around us, ever present and mystifying. I was feeling what many of my clients feel: a monotony of sorts. Happy to have a job yet going through the motions. Present yet physically distanced. The psychologist Adam Grant recently wrote a NYT blog naming what many of us are feeling: we are languishing. He writes: “Languishing is a sense of stagnation and emptiness. It feels as if you’re muddling through your days, looking at your life through a foggy windshield. And it might be the dominant emotion of 2021.” Could be, indeed.
“What do I think I do?” I repeated.
My husband was earnest. Curious, I thought about the past 18 months. What do I do? “Well, I teach people how to calm their nervous systems and evolve their brains to be more compassionate and caring.”
Yes. I really said that. A nerd at heart. It was a pretty succinct answer after being caught off guard. I had been reading Resmaa Menakem’s My Grandmother’s Hands before falling asleep at night. The narrative seeped into my thoughts about this past year, which has been traumatic for so many.
Some say we have three pandemics at once: coronavirus, racism, and mental discontent. The suffering is pervasive. Menakem writes in his beautiful book that the hard work of healing involves helping people “metabolize” trauma. He describes the difference between dirty pain/unmetabolized trauma and clean pain/metabolized trauma. The former results in interpersonal, intergenerational and cultural transmission of trauma, resulting in more pain, as we see with systemic oppression. Metabolizing trauma, on the other hand, is facing the pain with courage and doing something different. Something beneficial. This metabolism starts in the body: being aware, present, grounded, safe, and connected.
“No,” my husband stated. “You laugh a lot. I’m down here and you’re up there and I hear you laughing with people.” God, please don’t let me be the one with annoying guffaws. “You bring joy into people’s lives. You’re not a teacher. You’re a healer.”
Maybe there’s something to that. I don’t know. I believe we all have the capacity to heal ourselves and sometimes we just need another person to shine the light on those seeds of strength. What I do know now, as my family has illuminated, is that humor is a skill I didn’t know I had. Laughter is a somatic response that releases pain. Laughter cloaked in love helps metabolize stress and trauma. I’ve done it a million times without even knowing it.
Among those whom I like or admire, I can find no common denominator, but among those whom I love, I can: all of them make me laugh.— W. H. Auden
Check out m y new Insight Timer course: Kindfulness: 7 Simple Skills to Grow Inner Strengths.