Friday, January 30, 2009

Naming the Elephants

Funny how a person can be thinking of an idea, and then several cool things happen very soon after that enrich and expand the thinking, y'know?

I was visiting with some friends lately...and some pretty huge stuff has happened in both of our lives--the same tragic events. I'm a therapist--I'm open to heavy and candid conversations--clearly I'm comfortable, that's what I do. I realize that not everybody is like me, and so, I will often "open the door" to deeper conversation, and then wait to see if others choose to walk through. I try to accept that when others choose not to engage, it could be for a variety of reasons.

But this time it hurt.

On Wednesday, I was caching up on an old episode of "White Coat, Black Art" on my ipod as I was running. Brian Goldman was interviewing a pediatric oncologist who works with dying children, talking about talking with them about what was happening. She was a tender but direct interviewee as she named the pain of her job, and went on to describe the conversations. She said that children ask, "How will dying happen?" which can be code for, "How will I know when it is happening?" So she talked about how the staff would let the children know, " Today is a safe day, today is not the dying day" allowing them to relax to fall asleep with the knowledge that they would awaken again. Can you imagine saying that to a child? Can you imagine being in that position?

She states she can do this work because the children are dying, and they will die no matter what--but she has the opportunity to make it better than it might otherwise be. I admire her courage to be so direct with the children, which creates a relationship of honesty, trust, and caring.

Then, this morning, coffee with a friend. She was telling me about the things she was struggling with in life, and that as she was working through them, she was reminded of Madeline L'Engles' book, A Wind in the Door, which talks about Naming. In the book, naming was an important way of validating and loving people. (As a mom who spent hours selecting the right name for a child, I get that down deep) This prompted my friend to "name" that in her pain which was really the issue, and it empowered and brought a measure of healing, just by calling it for what it was.

Alcoholics Anonymous often terms the alcoholism in a family as the "elephant in the room". The drinking and its effects is a large impossible-to-ignore presence in the family, but one that is never talked about.

You've seen an elephant in a relationship...a large issue that is there, pressing people against the walls in uncomfortable ways, people peering over it and under it, shouting over it and pretending it isn't there, even as movements and conversation are inevitably shaped by it.

There's something empowering, respectful, and loving about naming the elephant. Naming disempowers the secret--the elephant shrinks. Naming validates and gives understanding. Naming demonstrates love in courageous ways. Naming confirms experience and shared humanity. Naming opens the door to healing.

And it doesn't have to be so bad. It can be prefaced with, "I'm not sure if I want to admit it..." or "Maybe you won't want to hear it..." or "We might both get nervous if one of us says it, but let's face it, ignoring it is a lot of work, so...". It can be followed with, "....I'm not sure how we talk about it," or "it's really complicated and hurtful to think about working through this."

Naming the elephants takes courage. It generally takes courage to love

What are the names of the elephants in your room? Have you said them out loud? Do you dare?

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