Different minds have different strengths. If you look at your best friend in a way you rarely if ever do, you will see that they possess a key quality that you wish you had. If your best friend isn’t your spouse this will also apply to the person you’re in a relationship with. This means many homebodies like partiers, many shy people like talkers, many tidy people like messy people, even people that like spending money will tend to be attracted to people that like to earn it. This makes our friends our teachers. They’re the people we keep around because we want their influence to be reflected in our own lives. Imitation really is a very sincere form of flattery.
The best friend of mine that took the big fall I referred to earlier this week was trained as a nurse. She loved her job and she was considered a nurse’s nurse; the kind of nurse you’d want if you were a nurse yourself. She’s the type of person that knows when to get serious about ensuring things are done the proper way when it comes to the science of medicine yet she’s known for being extremely human. She’s brilliant at being warm and patient.
I recently asked her about what it meant to be a nurse when she first started versus now and her answer was very telling. When she first graduated it was about processes and measurements and the use of equipment and finding things and learning the hierarchy of the institution itself, but once those things became second nature she did what she always does: she was empathetic.
As she spent more time in the hospital another form for her compassion emerged. She began to realise that the outcomes of patients often related to their level of fear. Some patients had a lot of busy dark thoughts about disease and injury and dangers and they would literally torture themselves in one bed while the next patient would have a much more serious situation and yet be positive about their health prognosis. One group saw illness the other saw health. Quelling those fears soon became a key component of what my friend considered “nursing.”
The fact is, the ability to simply be with someone during a difficult time is a rare skill anywhere in life, including professions one would presume would be attractive to those sorts of people. Precisely because we care we get caught up in our thinking when others are suffering. Like trying to smooth the ripples off a pond we only create more ripples. It’s not the right words that are required it is presence. We merely need to be quietly openly present.
All this means is that you don’t come in with preconceptions. You don’t come in with a solution nor do you actively search for one. You simply know that the other person is wise and they will know what they need. From there you only need to observe them openly to be able to glean your answers over time. You won’t figure out these kinds of answers you’ll just suddenly know them because of a deeper understanding you’ll have reached.
How valuable is this skill to those around you? An experienced and successful nurse came to see it as more important than even the science. She saw it as sensible that, like old-fashioned often-absent disciplinary fathers, the doctors–male or female–did the hard and important calculations of science while the nurses–be they female or male–were the constant and consistent mothers who offered their love and compassion. If the nurse’s care became cold and clinical one of the arms of medicine was not present. The patient could not be embraced.
Doctors and nurses see a lot of suffering and it’s easy to see it would be easy to forget how serious some of these smaller moments are to the people experiencing them the first time but that distorted vision also impacts the rest of us in our daily lives.
Is a heartbroken teen really being talked to like the most devastating event of their life is taking place, or are they being talked to in some future tense, where the parent understandably knows they’ll be fine? Because one of those is the parent’s reality and the other is the kid’s and a parent can’t offer presence by asking a kid to join their world, they have to relax into their kid’s. They can’t drag the kid forward into when they’ll feel better, they have to return to their own suffering and recall how much pain was involved. They have to join the child in the pain. That is love. That is compassion. That is presence.
Stay conscious. Stop always looking at the world from your perspective and start asking yourself what the same event must look like from another’s perspective. That is the seat of empathy and that is the magnet that makes presence possible. Do all you can to nurture that awareness in yourself and your relationships will deepen accordingly.
In the end everyone’s in pain and we all benefit from being in the open presence of others because with presence there are no givers and receivers there are only participants. So if you want your life to improve then participate in more compassionate actions instead of just having so many compassionate thoughts. It really is that easy.
Scott McPherson is an Edmonton-based writer, public speaker, and mindfulness facilitator who works with individuals, companies and non-profit organisations locally and around the world.
A serious childhood brain injury lead Scott to spend his entire life meditating on the concepts of thought, consciousness, reality and identity. It made others as strange to him as he was to them. When he realized people were confused by their own over-thinking, Scott began teaching others to understand reality. He is currently CBC Radio Active’s Wellness Columnist, as well as a writer, speaker and mindfulness instructor based in Edmonton, AB where he still finds it strange to write about himself in the third person.