Apr 022020
 

The woman on the other end of the call tried desperately to speak through anxiety and a torrent of tears. “Take a deep breath.” I said, “I want to understand what you are facing.”

“I’m overwhelmed. I’m confused. My life is falling apart. I tried to call my therapist, but her mailbox is full, so I can’t even leave a message. I don’t know what to do.” The tears and anxiety returned.

“Why are you feeling so overwhelmed?” I asked. Trying to hold back tears, she replied, “This virus has turned my world upside down. I have two young children and I have to be everything: mom, teacher, cook, housekeeper. I’m drowning. I try to do it all, but I can’t. I feel like a total failure. There isn’t even any time during the day to care for myself.”

I continued, “First, I am in awe of your herculean efforts to try to do everything.” “Thank you,” she replied, “That’s really nice to hear.”

 “In addition to attempting everything, are you expecting perfection?” I asked, suspecting the answer. “Of course. I take pride in doing things well, and right now, I’m failing at everything,” she said through a renewed wave of tears. “So, in addition to not checking everything off your list, you’re piling on guilt for not being perfect.” “Yes,” she responded quietly.

 “Can we agree that these are extraordinary times, and that nothing is what it was a few weeks ago? These times demand that each of us discover new ways to be in the world. What would it take for you to accept you can no longer be perfect in everything, and be gentle with yourself for the imperfections?” She said it would be difficult.

“I understand, but here’s a thought. It’s the end of March. What would happen if you picked a date, say June 1, and decided to quarantine your judgements and guilt until then? What if, for the next two months, you decided, since life is crazy, imperfection is what is needed. You can go back to being perfect after June 1, if you so choose. But for now, can it be okay to be imperfect? If there are dishes in the sink, it’s fine…clothes to be washed, oh well…beds aren’t made, so be it…every school assignment isn’t finished, pick it up again tomorrow. Could you quarantine the judgements for 60 days and be kind and gentle with yourself?” After a short pause, she said “I think I could, but it would be hard.” I reminded her everything is difficult right now.

I asked, of all the things not getting done, what hurts the most. “With all the other things I feel I have to do, I’m forgetting to be Mom. My children need that more than anything and it’s last on the list.” “So,” I pressed, “if you let other things be imperfect, do you think you might find time each day to play with your children? Just have fun?” In a truly joyful voice, she said it sounded wonderful.

In the end, she told me she marked June 1 on her calendar and was putting everything aside that afternoon to spend time being the Mom her children need. Then she said, “Can it be okay to be imperfect in other things so I can be a good Mom? Absolutely!” Suddenly, it was me in tears.

Mar 262016
 

The dominant hues in the picture I painted of the young man on the phone were strength, perseverance, courage and determination. All he could see were dark pigments of failure, disappointment and weakness.

Sam (not his real name) was negotiating his senior year in high school. In junior high, he found himself in an unspeakably horrific hole. Nearly anything you wish to stuff into that hole was likely there tormenting him. He had lost himself, and I suspect, the world nearly lost him as well. Sometime during his sophomore year he realized he no longer wanted to be the person he saw himself becoming, so he clawed his way out of that hellhole. He rid himself of the enormous negative influences that kept him i015mprisoned, kicked numerous frightening habits, jettisoned most of his “friends,” and dedicated himself to his studies. Now, as a senior, he has good grades and is applying to several wonderful colleges.

I was so taken by him I told him I loved him, loved who he is and who he is becoming. He began to sob. I asked the source of the tears. “You’re the first person who ever told me they loved me.” That nearly ripped my heart out. But all Sam could see when he looked in the mirror was a failed young man who made countless, unforgivable mistakes. In his mind he feared that who he truly is, and always will be, is a failure.

In the figure above, the two squares highlighted by the arrows are—ready?—the exact same shade of gray. If you don’t believe me, put them side by side.

I find this a powerful metaphor. What if the two squares represent the differing portraits of Sam; that which I saw versus that to which Sam is witness? It’s the same person, but our views are so dramatically different…so incongruous…it’s hard to imagine we are picturing the same person.

So, from where do the two images of Sam—mine versus his—emerge?

I’m told John Keats once posited the heart is the only organ strong enough to educate the mind. As I reflect on my time with Sam, the palette with which I painted was of the heart. As we spoke, my heart broke open and the emerging masterpiece that was Sam simply appeared. He was a strong, courageous young man who had made many, forgivable mistakes. He is human after all.

The primary palette at Sam’s disposal was of the mind, tainted and dulled by the memory of failures, hurts and mistakes. As I painted, the canvas was not distorted by the foibles of his humanity. His was, so his brush was unable to capture the beauty and authenticity.

On another call a few weeks later, a young man announced he had a gun in his lap and intended to use it. From as far back as he could remember he was tormented physically, emotionally and sexually—from every quarter of his existence. The story was painful to hear—impossible to imagine as anyone’s reality. He felt worthless, hopeless and ready to end his unspeakable pain. I suggested the story he told emerged largely from the scars and hurts that filled his memory. I asked if a different story might emerge if he listened to his heart. When he glimpsed his world through his sensitive, complex and delicate heart, he tearfully told of his ability to change the lives of many other young people. Because of his deep understanding of the meaning of human existence, he could hold up a powerful mirror to others to help them see themselves in new ways. As our call ended, he happily put the gun away.

For too many, the canvas of our lives is distorted by memories of hurt, failure and scars. We are far more facile at opening our hearts and seeing the masterpiece that is the other, than we are at seeing our own. But if we had the facility to see the image others paint of us—that of the heart—we just might witness a masterpiece.