The sentence came as a surprise. Actually, I didn’t think they were listening that close. The words were not difficult, the sentence was not complex, but the effect was. The result was that I had a choice and only a moment to decide. To hide behind the usual nostrums and platitudes to deflect or would the more honest version of the truth come through. This dilemma is not a place I find myself often. I am a quick study and usually quite vigilant about my conversation partners and their talents to penetrate my shielding. Until this.
A conversation is a mix of items, and like any recipe there are some common ingredients and then a few things that change the bars into cake or cookies. It is the same for a conversation. Many common things are to be expected, and then a few random items that turn it toward or away from any given depth. Things like the amount of time expected or the closeness of the relationship. The partners comedic nature for a bit of levity and their “normal” range of topics. Familiarity with their story and history is also there, but so is the history of the progression of that story. Is it always the same range of topics or has it grown since it first began? Intensity is an ingredient and as such, like salt, too much will spoil the thing. Sometimes you can mistake one ingredient for another. Like baking soda, powdered sugar and flour all are fluffy white powders but the results get really crazy when you get the measurements mixed up.
And still here was the moment. The questions were to direct to ignore. The relationship was to genuine to play off as inappropriate to answer. They were very capable of knowing if I was being forthcoming or illusive. They mattered too much to do that. To answer honestly and with candor would move the story of our relationship to a new and different place. Would the glass be clear or clouded? Would I be opaque with my answer or not? Would I be true to my own self or not?
The story is not important in the details specific, but in the impact. I am not much different than most, in that we are not necessarily forthcoming with much of our stories of our lives. Most other people don’t have time or interest and are actually waiting on someone else to show enough interest to let them tell their story first. Then, free from the burden that had restricted their movements they trundle off on their way. They may not even realize that to reciprocate would be a great help to another. There is a threshold that must be met to make this happen; humility. The odd thing is that this humility is born of having been at a place above and then required to retract somewhat. Meaning it is to reach backwards and down, in order to help another that has stumbled. This is an issue of respect and not station in life. It is from a place of more that you can then give to one with less.
There is a place of brokenness that the givers of this stuff live, a humility of the daily grind. The struggle of addiction allows others with addictions to speak a language that the ones without the addiction cannot speak or hear. Some can know of the existence of the struggle but not the depths of it. I can listen to the anguish, but still “not know the anguish”. I have been spared this walk, but it leaves me outside. Others will need to take that walk with the wounded.
Easily I deflect. Deftly, I slide the subject through the mixer to get back to “not about me”. Quick is the parry and the thrust and the step to offense. The questioner and not the answer giver. Perhaps I have misread the strength of the relationship, or the time allotment you have made. The willingness to endure until the story is told. Well, perhaps this one part of it. The fear that some of the ingredients are too sharp or distinctly noticeable, that you will never see me as companionable again, is also an ingredient. So, the choice to remain opaque is always present as an ingredient as well.
It is an odd thing to discover, that you find one of the ingredients to have a later lingering on the tongue, like a well-run conversation that you had hours ago still lingering and wishing for seconds. The feeling of relief after the telling, or the fear that now the story is told, and you are not in control of the fate of it. Both are there, that is the tension. If you were certain of the outcome the choice would have been easier. Told to the one you knew would hold the confidence and not told to the one that was shallow and thin and unworthy of the trust needed to receive the gift of the telling. But here is the dilemma, the new friend and the unclear boundaries. The old friend and the potential for the recoil. 12 step programs deal with this by gathering people with the same struggles in a place that is safe, for all are on the journey to recovery. They can be clear and not opaque. Here and with these of the same struggle.
In an odd way I have told you of my struggles. That is, to find a place to be clear is a moment of changing the glass that lets you peer into my walk, to shift from opaque to transparent. I am very capable of being “open” about much of my walk. But even that is only a ruse to protect and to hide the parts that I reserve for few. Most are as I in this manner. Some are better and some are not. When we meet eyes, we both know.
The two were strangers. We were at a 4-day conference and this was the third day. They had been watching me, which I had not noticed. There were several hundred people there and we gravitated to our usual spots for meals, so we had become acquainted. I knew of their jobs and their repeated trips to the conference and the people they brought with them. They knew that I was with a friend but little else. The leader said that he had been watching me and that I seldom sat with my friend or in the same place twice and that I was always friendly with the ones around me and that I seemed to be always helping others. While all of that was surprising in how complete the observation was, it was also noticeable that I was not being vulnerable, and they wanted to know what was up. And there it was. Opacity or transparency. The choice to deflect to two people that I would never see again or to be candid and tell the truth.
They had time and they were genuine in the enquiry and so the conversation went to a new place. I told of the mind tricks that the leader of the conference used and that they didn’t work on me. He was not a bad leader but was moving the crowd through the steps of dismantling their resistance, so that was fine. I could lend aid to the ones that I had met but no one had been interested until these two, so I was fine. There as a friend to one that was struggling and that was enough. They wanted more…. So, I told them of the struggles and the notion that I didn’t think anyone was ready to listen or to deal with something they could not fix anyway. That I was essentially alone with the wound that I walked with and that since that was normal, I would limp along. I told of the appreciation that they had enough interest and boldness to ask, and that obviously no one else had, so that was cool. That they didn’t run from the table during the telling and they listened to the honesty of the thing. Now comes the irony of the tale. One of the guys then said that he knew exactly what I was talking about, regarding the magnitude of the thing. That few if any would have the reserves to listen without fleeing or changing the subject. He had lost his wife of 18 years and was numb. He had taken up bodybuilding as way to release the built-up anger, so exhaustion was the answer. He had a son that was graduating and a girlfriend that he was not in love with but was convenient. He told me that of all of the people here only my honesty had given him the opening to tell these things and that he now knew why people had talked to me over these days. He was relieved and felt released from the struggle that had been a growing load on him and he was grateful. And I was still doing the same thing I do. Listening. Pointed questions of merit. Empathy and compassion that was genuine. The giver of the gift. I was not opaque, so he could be not opaque with me.
This is the part that is real. That you cannot give that which you do not have. When you have been given the gift of a limp, others will see it and ask as to how you learned to walk. Your answer will be freeing or burdensome. Freeing if you are free and a list making tyranny if you are a pretender. You have been given grace, in a certain measure. It is that which you have. It is that which you can give. To some it is the one ingredient that will bring the recipe to completion. To others it will bring a taste that is bitter, and they will leave the table. They have not been in the oven long enough. They are not done yet. That is fine. It will come.
One last thought, though. The two enquirers had been work companions and friends for many years. They had been through many adventures together, but still the moment that I was vulnerable was the moment that the one had told the other of the numbness. The leader could see that there was something amiss, but the other had not been ready to tell the story that wanted told. The last ingredient was my willingness to tell. That is what made the recipe complete. It broke loose the reservoir that was holding things in place. Be careful when a friend of many years reveals to a stranger something that they had not told to you. Do not be jealous of the telling, be grateful for the release. You had been the companion, but not the last ingredient. You had suffered through the long period of the leavening and now was the time for the rolling it out. You had been the carrier to this moment, that was your job. Like the leader that did not get the story, he was grateful that I had been there to allow his friend to begin the part of the healing that had just now started.
It is a difficult thing for some, this thing called life. Be careful as you walk among the wounded. You may find that it is you that is needing a friend that you have not met yet. The missing ingredient that will finish this part of the recipe.
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