Witnessing someone in pain is difficult.
You aren’t sure what to do. What to say. Exactly how to act.
You provide a moment of safe space for that person to simply vent his frustration. You think you are just being there for him, but then you walk away realizing his funk has now become yours. Or his anger is stuck on you. Your hips ache. Your shoulders are tight. It feels like some type of green slime has been smeared over your body and you feel sticky and stuck.
What do you do? You’re now in pain. Someone’s suffering has become your suffering.
Offer him tough love. Or love yourself enough to get tough and shield yourself from the green goo of misplaced emotions that is starting to ooze in your direction.
What does that look like? It all depends, I guess. I watched a friend give some tough love to his students today. He was so angry with a group of freshmen students who made fun of someone’s “weirdness” yesterday. They mocked him. Teased him for his differences. And my friend spent 2 hours of his work time counseling this student, getting him some help, watching this student rage, curse, and cry his way to a physical, mental, and emotional breakdown.
My friend was drained and needed to eat lunch so I agreed to spend the first part of my lunch hour in his room so he could eat. I walked in the room and he started his class with a powerful, passionate, articulate speech about the treatment of a person who is going through a difficult time. He reminded his students that it is his job to protect and take care of his students, and that means not just each of them individually, but students at this school collectively. I can’t even begin to capture his words he so eloquently said to them, but by the end students’ heads were hanging in shame and you could feel how their emotions shifted from animosity to embarrassment to love – love for the individual who was mocked and love for their teacher who cared enough to be so bold and straightforward with them while revealing his authentic emotions in the moment. It was beautiful. And it was tough love in its fiercest and purest form.
I left his classroom later that hour with an open heart and a desire to be authentic.
I also knew that if my heart was open, I needed to carry an imaginary shield to fend of the emotional goo of others. I didn’t want to get sucked into a deep, dark hole of someone else’s suffering, fear, rage, or sadness. There’s enough of my own pain that I must tend to on occasion anyway.
I didn’t want to do battle, but I didn’t want to be in an open field during hunting season either.
How can openness and protection go hand in hand?
I guess it comes with acknowledging the other person, first and foremost.
After subbing for my friend’s class, I ate a quick lunch and joined another teacher for hall duty. We stand out in front of the cafeteria during a lunch period and keep the herd from going out to pasture before the bell rings.
One student needed to go to his locker. He was of Middle-Eastern origin and was wearing a black sweatshirt that read “Palestine vs. The World.” He was not in dress code, so I asked him to remove his sweatshirt. He was visibly angry, but decided not to test us, so he removed it. I told him I would escort him to his locker (kids aren’t allowed to leave the area without a pass from another teacher). He tried to antagonize me verbally. I put up my shield and smiled genuinely at him. He didn’t really know how to react to that.
He asked about my sweatshirt I was wearing. It has our school’s diversity club logo on it. Our club is called “Harambee” which means “Let’s all pull together” in Swahili. I mentioned it to him and that I am one of the sponsors of the club. He asked a bit about it and I told him some of the fun activities we do and our annual show we put on for the school and the public. I then asked him about his sweatshirt. He got embarrassed and said he wasn’t really sure what it meant, but that his older brother wears it and his brother is angry all the time and very political.
We talked about the possible connotations of the sweatshirt and how others may view it as well. He said, “I really didn’t know what it could mean. I guess it seems a little aggressive, doesn’t it?” I said, “Probably at this time in the world’s trials, yes, but it is also a statement of pain and misunderstanding.” He just shook his head in contemplation. We started our walk back to the cafeteria after he grabbed what he needed from his locker and put his sweatshirt away. I asked him if he had family from Palestine, and he told me he was born there and goes back every year to celebrate Ramadan with his grandparents and aunts and uncles.
He got so excited to share about his culture and was even more excited that I knew what Ramadan is and some of the customs that go along with it. I asked him if he spoke Arabic (his English was flawless with no trace of an accent). He smiled really big and said, “Yes.” I told him I knew a few words, and he asked me what I knew. I smiled and said, “Asalam alaikum” (which loosely translated means “Allah’s (or God’s) peace to you”). He grabbed my hand in true Arabic fashion, pressed his other hand on top of mine and said, “Alaikum asalam” (“Peace be unto you as well”).
Before I sound too emotionally gooey here, know that after that a butthead freshman came along and tested my limits. He was rude, crude, and obnoxious, and I wasn’t so open and understanding with him. I got tough and let him get himself in trouble. I wrote him up and realized that I couldn’t get through to him because he didn’t want to reach out to me. Not my problem. I chose love of myself for this one and put on my Wonder Woman bracelets and became a brick wall that he could only bounce off of. The job of “getting through to him” would come later, from someone else. Until then, he could go sit with his anger and animosity in the office, away from me and other kids who don’t have the skill to shake off his negative vibes.
And the day kept rolling on like that: open my heart, smile, use my words, protect with shield, or deflect with Wonder Woman bracelets. Each student’s energy determining what form of love I would show to them, and to myself.