Mama, today my friend was having a hard time at school, so our teacher said I could go into the hall with her.
And what did you do when you got there? I asked.
Nothing, she said.
What do you mean nothing? I pushed. Weren't you supposed to help her?
We can get uncomfortable not doing or saying or fixing someone who is showing us her pain. We can find it hard to look at someone who wears his vulnerability, instead of hiding it in a place that muffles the sound. We can even get indignant when someone dares to share her successes.
When they were babies, my children would look for my face whenever something shifted in the room. Whether it was happy, surprising or sad—they wanted to see how it affected me, so they could decide how it should affect them. If I smiled, their mouths would turn up at the corners. If I was upset, worry would cross their brows. If I pretended to cry, their faces would crumple, too.
As we get older, we begin to mistrust that instinct. We forget that sharing pain can help to lessen it. We forget that sharing joy won't diminish our own. We forget that being able to sit quietly beside someone and her feelings is one of the most beautiful aspects of being human.
We forget that being affected is okay.
I was around the same age as my daughter when my mom's close friend lost her mom. I knew she was coming over for a cup of tea, and I announced I would be hiding in my room.
No you won't said my mom. You will greet her when she comes, and you will tell her you are sorry she lost her mom.
That will make her sadder, I said.
Losing her mom made her sad. And we need to show her it's okay to be sad here.
I think those words will always be among the most profound my mom has given me. And I have done my best to leave a space beside me for anyone who needs it—whether it is for joy or pain.
At this time—when our world is deeply hurting and we too easily lose sight of how to give our most human gifts to another—I am more determined to carry on the teachings of my parents. We are born with the instinct to look inside the heart of others; we should not let the fear of putting you before me stand in the way of our humanity.
I want my children to know how to leave a space for others. And though I know there will be many times someone is too afraid to leave a space for them, I hope they won't be dissuaded.
I turned so her eyes could settle on my face, so she could decide how I was affected by what she was telling me. And I hope she saw what she needed there.
She left a space, and a friend came and sat down inside of it.