This was inspired by a number of things going on in my life, now and in the past. I’m not entirely sure it fits either this blog or my other one, but it came pouring out of me tonight and wouldn’t let me go until I finished it.
Everyone can empathize with this situation: a friend calls you on the phone, emotionally wrought over a situation in their life. It doesn’t matter what the cause or details of the situation are, it may be love, money, career, children, marriage, divorce, death, or anything else that cuts us to the quick. You listen, and your brain begins to formulate an answer, a plan, a course of action, a solution. You do this because you care about your friend, and you don’t want them to suffer these terrible emotions any longer than they have to. If all it would take is a change of perspective, or a willingness to take on a new or different plan of attack, to put them in better straits, why are they angry when you suggest this?
This is usually explained in terms of gender, but I don’t necessarily buy that. I think there are just as many men who have found themselves “caught” in a situation and call upon someone to listen in their time of need, as there are women who are frequently frustrated when their friend won’t just accept their quick and easy solution and shut up already. Sometimes it is also painted as a matter of age or maturity; that the young don’t want to be lead to the answer, but just want to know someone with more experience in life understands how they feel. But why is that important? Why do we prioritize empathy over answers?
The answer is enchantment, and not in the way you’d ordinarily think of it. The person lost in their crisis is drawing someone else into their maelstrom (and granted, that’s the price we sometimes pay for the intimacy and trust of someone we love) to feel less alone in the world, to know that someone out there is as invested in, if not the actual details, then the journey ahead that they will have to take in order to sort things out. In their own way, they don’t want to face the inevitable change alone. They want you to be as changed as they, even if your role is merely one of a sacred witness.
After an ordeal, I frequently find myself not only giving comfort and counsel to the ordeal dancer (the person for whom the ordeal is created), but to those the dancer asks to serve as witnesses. It may be their best friend or lover, a fellow spiritual seeker, or if the ritual deigns it, even a stranger. It’s important to note that a spectator is not the same as a witness; many people ask if they can watch a particularly powerful ordeal, if for no other reason than to quell their own curiosity about such things, but experience has taught me that spectators create a kind of awkward energy that does not contribute towards the goals the ritual is reaching for. You feel stared at, instead of held; judged, instead of understood (even if the judgment is positive, it still isn’t the same); you feel coldness, instead of warmth. And the spectator is also purposefully (if not willfully) creating a barrier between them and the ritual – this is something other people are doing, that I am staring at for my own purposes – rather than allowing themselves to become wrapped up in the energy, to let go of their fear and judgment not only of what’s happening in front of them, but of themselves. A person who spectates is afraid that they may become enchanted by the thing they’re watching, and that yanks away any sense of separateness that they may be clinging to. They become a part of what’s happening, rather than apart from it.
So when that friend calls you, they are asking for a witness instead of a spectator. A spectator at a ritual is the one who is going to pick up on any slight of hand being used to enhance the dancer’s experience; they’re going to notice when the bottle won’t open, or the candle takes four tries to light. Their separateness keeps their mind in the details, rather than the experience. So do we, when listening to a friend’s outpouring, look for the mistakes, the lapses in judgment, the obvious choices overlooked. When we present our solution, what we are communicating is “If you only removed yourself from the chaos, you’d notice this very obvious detail.”
But it’s not the detail that concerns them. In fact, they may feel so overwhelmed by the situation that no matter what hole you think you’ve found, they immediately strike you suggestions down – either because they’ve already thought about that and know why it won’t work, but frequently it’s because your observation forces them to abandon their enrapture in the emotional state, and they’re just not ready to do that.
It seems like it doesn’t make any sense, but it does. You’d think that everyone would want the easy solution, the instant answer, the immediate relief of knowing that their suffering can end, but you, dear reader, are overlooking a very important mythical piece of the puzzle. See, in any good myth, no matter how much good advice our hero gets along the way, it’s still their journey to take. We can choose to be a simple roadside attraction along the way – Macbeth’s witches – or we can choose to be a fellow journeyer.
Sometimes, it’s a practical decision. We all have busy lives, and our own crises and maelstroms to deal with, and we just don’t have the time or energy to walk someone elses path, especially when you realize they’re going to dictate whether you go right or left, and your job is to quietly follow along, like the Tin Man and the Scarecrow. We all want to believe we’re Dorothy, the one on a mission, the one who drives the bus, but doing that all of the time not only makes us incredibly self-centered, but very lonely in the process. People will tire of always being the Tin Man to your Dorothy, especially when their lives face their own upheaval. It’s a bit of tit for tat; if you want someone to be there for you in your time of need, you will have to make time to be there for them.
But it’s also okay to decide that you’re better off being a Glinda, a character who pops into the story, deposits their wisdom, and then retreats to let Dorothy go on her merry way. It may sound harsh, but sometimes it really boils down to whether or not you want to make an investment in your fellow human being. Making these kinds of decisions really help define who your inner circle is, because the more you decide to walk with people in their times of need, the more people will walk with you when you sound the clarion call. But there are hundreds if not thousands of people you will encounter in your life, especially if you find yourself in some sort of service position, from hairdresser to shaman.
I will admit that a big part of my role as a shaman is deciding whose journey I’m willing to go on. Because even if I think I know what the answer at the end of the yellow brick road is, I know from years of experience (including being a big brother), that no matter how well you know the Wizard is just an illusion, some things must be experienced first hand. I frequently tell people that I learned early on, watching my younger sister make mistakes I had made in my youth, that no amount of telling her she’d chosen a perilous path would deter her from doing it; all I could do was hold her hand, and quietly assemble the metaphorical first aid kit for when it all fell apart.
Many spirit workers see themselves as Glindas, and that can be the right choice most of the time. People come to us with a wide array of spiritual problems and decisions, and some times all we need to do is help them discern what choices are available to them, give them our personal opinion (and often the opinions of the spirits/Gods involved), and then stand back and fade away as the person progresses on in their spiritual journey. And it isn’t necessarily a selfish decision to make; frequently, that’s all a client expects of us.
But the way of folly is to start seeing oneself as the wise man on the mountain, removed from all human foibles and needs. If all you ever do is spit out spiritually motivated fortune cookies, who will be there for you when you face your own dark tea time of the soul? If you begin to confuse everyone who comes into your life with a spiritual need as merely being a client, who can you call when your lover leaves, or you Gods fall silent, or you fuck up in some spectacular fashion and have to pick up the pieces? Who will come to your aid when you are publicly humiliated or attacked? Or when your normally-tolerable austerity slowly slides into untenable poverty?
It’s not that you necessarily have to become friends with every client, but at the very least by allowing yourself to become enchanted by their plights and problems, you create a bond of trust and respect. You establish yourself as a real human being, instead of a Zoran-type fortune teller doling out spiritual pithiness. Maybe by doing so, you’ll meet someone who you’d like to take into your trust, develop a fondness for, a mutual appreciation society.
But if you look at each and every client as an irritation, someone who pulls you away from doing your Great Work (whatever that may be), they’ll know it. You’ll bark out some quick solution, like “Do the work!” or “Listen to your ancestors!” or “Not everyone is meant to be a spirit worker!”, and no one benefits. The client won’t do it, because it’s obvious they failed to enchant you, so they rightfully know that you don’t really understand what they’re going through on an empathetic level (even if you say that you do, even if you’ve had the exact same experience a hundred times, it doesn’t matter. Every person is a permutation of humanity, and every person’s challenges are colored by those permutations).
So how do you dance this line, either as a friend who wants to be there but doesn’t have hours to spend listening to another person’s woes, or as a spirit worker/shaman, who is trying to be of service to their communities without sacrificing their health and personal needs?
First, allow yourself to be a witness instead of a spectator. Purposefully shut off the internal voices that jump to judgment of what your friend is telling you, and don’t try to orchestrate solutions while the person is still speaking. Don’t look for the holes and mistakes, and remember that you, too, have holes and mistakes you’d rather not have your nose rubbed in. Instead, listen with intent. If you haven’t read something about active listening, that’s a good start. Really listen, instead of waiting for your turn to speak. Don’t jump to assumptions based on your own experiences, but instead interpret what you’re being told as if it were the first time you’ve heard of such a thing. It sounds easy, but it’s a real skill you have to develop.
Strive to be fully present for those who ask these things of you, and be honest when you can’t. It’s not easy to tell someone who is emotionally wrought that I’m having a bad pain day and want to reschedule our talk for some other time; or to suggest that maybe someone else is having less distractions that day and would be better suited to listen. We tend to let our ego get tied up in this sort of thing, and want to be the person people turn to – it feeds our desire to be needed, as well as to be nuturing to others. It may make you feel important that of all of their friends (or all of the spirit workers), this person is coming to you. Don’t let that overpower your own good sense of your availability, your ability to invest in this person’s journey, or your own sense of self-preservation. Of course, the other side of all of this is to learn to appreciate, instead of scorn, when someone you turn to in a time of need tells you they don’t have the time for it, or that they can’t do it until next Tuesday, or suggests someone else who might be better suited to talk. They’re not rejecting you, they’re being honest about their interest and ability to invest in what you’re going through, and the very last thing you want or need is to be dragging someone against their will as you face your dragons.
When the time is right to talk of solutions or advancements, ask before you dictate. Ask them what options they think they have, or what directions they want to go in. I fail at this sometimes, because although I can suppress my inner fix-it-man, sometimes this is when it comes bursting out of my chest like a tap-dancing alien. Now that it’s my turn to speak, I want to do everything within my power to remove their suffering; and I’ll readily admit, it’s as much about being altruistic as it is about being seen as someone with wisdom (and the prestige that goes with it). Many clients and friends come to me because my relentless self-examination, combined with my spiritual devotions, has made me wise to the ways of man, sometimes. I mean, my husband told me on our first date that his first marriage ended because he cheated, and every bone in my body told me to run because he’d cheat on me and that’s something I have a hard time with, but I still fell for it, thinking like many do that allowing him to develop open relationships with other people would satiate whatever his need for cheating was. But in the end, I was wrong (and had ignored my own as well as others wisdoms), because cheating isn’t about the sex or the love, but about the thrill of potentially getting caught. But hey, at least now that’s another wisdom I can tuck into my belt, right?
But yes, it can feel good to have a friend trust you with their insecurities, fears, weaknesses, and sadness; that’s not helpful if it turns into resentment over the time and energy they’ll need before they’ve found their way. Being selective goes against the social niceties we’re taught as children, but in this case it’s necessary. I usually explain to people (when it’s true, mind you) that my decision to be a Glinda and not a Tin Man is not about them or how I feel about them; it’s about me and not committing to more than I can handle. Sometimes, however, it’s best not to say such things, but just to know internally which approach you’re going to take, and to take it with no sense of guilt.
There are people out there, after all, when they learn that you’re willing to be enchanted by them, will begin to take advantage of this – some do it un- or sub-consciously, while others do it on purpose. It lights up our reward centers to know that someone we like, trust, or look up to, makes the decision to enter our lives in such an intimate way, and we humans like our rewards centers lit. More than once I’ve encountered people who invent or inflate personal drama in order to assure themselves that my energy is still there if they need it. In fact, I believe some psychic vampires (mostly unethical ones, or ones who don’t know what they are) use this as a primary way of feeding themselves; they find someone (likely someone without a big social network, so they’re flattered to be taken into confidence; or someone whose energy is big and tasty, which I struggled to rephrase in a more explanatory way but failed, so there it is) who is willing to be enchanted by a real story or situation of conflict, and once they realize that person will do this no matter how big or small the situation may be in reality, they will continue to have “emergencies” and “situations”. This is where the kinds of people who vaguely reference suicidal thoughts or relationship troubles fall into those kinds of feeding patterns; they watch to see who jumps to ask them what’s wrong or offer their love and support.
But just as there are those who abuse the good will of people willing to become enchanted, there are those who desire nothing more than to be there for people. We call them “White Knights”; they are attracted to people who seem to either have a long series of conflicts, or some life-long ones, and their ego and sense of self is inflated when they cast themselves in the role of the Rescuer. They create unhealthy relationships of dependency, where their target is slowly convinced to let Mr. Knight dictate the solution to all their ills. They never, ever paint it this way; they play 10,000 Maniacs’ song “Trouble Me” as a siren song. Without someone in their life who needs them so desperately, they feel adrift and purposeless; and yet they find themselves in a never ending cycle. They find someone who “needs” them, help build them up by allowing a dependency to form, and eventually the “needer” realizes that they are strong enough now to handle life on their own terms, and begin to resent the “rescuer” for dictating all of life’s solutions as though the “needed” can’t figure them out on their own. Or, monkey forbid, disagree with the “rescuers” answers.
That all being said, how do we engage in these sorts of exchange without going off the deep end?
–Decide if you are willing and able to invest in someone elses journey. It is just as unhealthy to say “no” all the time as it is to say “yes”. Evaluate your time, your ability, and your desire to create intimacy with the person doing the asking. If you have it, then:
–Allow yourself to become enchanted by their story. Don’t spectate, or look for the quick and easy solutions. Become an active participant in the storytelling by empathizing with the person’s feelings and experiences before you start dispensing advice.
–Ask the person what they want to do, what they think is right, what kinds of solutions or suggestions they’re looking for, before you jump in with whatever you have to say. Sometimes people just want to be heard and supported, and don’t actually want you to tell them what to do.
–Check in. Show the person you’re invested by taking an active role in their life during the crisis. Drop them an email, or a phone call, or a visit, to let them know that you care and feel just as influenced by what’s happening in their life as they do. Treat it like a novel you’re reading, and you’re dying to know what the next chapter holds.
–Step away when the solution shows itself. No matter if you agree or disagree with how the person chooses to handle whatever they’re facing, give them the space and autonomy to seal their own fate. Don’t offer to do the work for them; nothing is ever achieved via proxy. (Remember in high school, when you’d ask your best friend to tell your boy/girlfriend you were breaking up? The girl/boyfriend just came marching directly to you to ask you if it was for real. Don’t be the middle man; you’ll end up being cast as the busy-body in the end.)
–Celebrate the success, or mourn the failure, without judgment. Don’t nitpick what they did wrong, and no one likes a “I told you so”, even if it’s the truth. Just hold space for the person to have their experience, and validate their emotions because they’re worthwhile.