A friend shared a story with me this week. He had spent the morning visiting with a 70-year-old neighbor with a dire diagnosis. His condition was worsening. My friend was unable to offer his neighbor any better ways forward. He didn’t want to seem too hopeful. Doing so might have come across like he was minimizing the pain of his neighbor’s plight.
After about an hour, my friend apologized that he couldn’t be more helpful. His neighbor countered, “Why are you apologizing? You’ve been very helpful.” My friend was surprised. “You’re being too kind,” he politely replied. “No I’m being honest,” the neighbor went on. “You shared my emotional space with me and that was hugely helpful.”
People underestimate the power of feeling heard. When you hold still, when you attempt to sense what’s pulsating in the ducts and chambers of another person’s heart, you are being helpful. By simply not moving-on, your attentive-presence presents them with a gift.
I recently shared a maxim with some fellow learners: “A prisoner cannot release themself from a prison cell.” “Why not?” I asked. Their reply impressed me. “Maybe because most of us don’t realize when we’re in jail.” After all, prisons aren’t only correctional facilities for felons. They can also be of our own making; settings we erect where we lack choice, where we’re trapped, unfree.
Most of us don’t realize when we’re inside them. As automatically as you brush your teeth, you prefer to avoid confrontation. As reflexively as you tie your shoes, you remain bothered by yesterday’s hurtful remark from a colleague.
So it takes another person to release you. To open the door, walk in, take a seat, and then walk out together. Prompts are necessary. Cues from outside yourself, help you recognize where you’ve put yourself.
This week’s portion of Torah includes a law that promotes free choice for an unfree person. “You shall not capture and return a slave seeking freedom…You shall let him choose a dwelling that will be good for him” (Deut. 23:16-17). By letting him choose his place, you let him exercise his freedom. A wise congregant added this week that it’s probably not accidental that the Torah calls this chosen place by the same name God uses to call the place toward which we pray (makom asher yivchar). Divine praise for our freedom-to-choose could not be clearer.
A season can also serve as a prompt. Anticipating the New Year, our community is encouraging everyone to ask: “What has changed you in some significant way in recent months? And, how has this newer version of you made you look at others more compassionately?” Our project is called Rise and Shine.
May Elul’s inner-questions be your prompt. And may you begin to discover for yourself that your patient and forgiving God is listening.