Earlier this week I wrote a blog about ahimsa, nonviolence, and briefly mentioned that many students of yoga say that ahimsa extends to subtler types of violence towards others–like worrying about and trying to change them. It turns out, I’ve recently learned, you can’t change other people. There’s a huge difference between worrying about someone, and supporting someone. This Friday’s story from NPR‘s StoryCorps demonstrates support–being there for someone and listening–perfectly. In summary, ten years ago Kevin Berthia went to the Golden Gate Bridge to jump off. His daughter had been born premature and the medical bills were upwards of $250,000, he didn’t see a way out of debt, and he was horribly depressed. But a highway patrolman standing there saw him when he climbed over, and before Berthia could jump, the officer, Kevin Briggs, started talking to him. They talked for an hour and a half and eventually Berthia came back over. The part of the story that moved me the most was when Berthia said to Briggs, “I was just mad at myself for being in that situation and I was embarrassed. But somehow the compassion in your voice is what allowed me to kinda let my guard down enough for us to have a conversation.”
I love the reminder that compassion can be enough sometimes.
I’m also reading Ann Patchett’s Truth and Beauty, the story of her friendship with fellow writer Lucy Grealy, who suffered from cancer as a child and was left with a disfigured face. While Lucy made up for her disfigurement with an outsized, boisterous personality, she also suffered horrific depression and was especially burdened with the fear she would never find someone to love her. This fear sometimes led to destructive, needy behaviors. During one of Lucy’s bouts of depression, Patchett writes of trying to comfort a sobbing, despondent Lucy. “I was stunned by the rawness of her pain,” she writes. “I came to understand that night in the sports bar, safe from the blinding rain, that I could not worry about Lucy anymore. I knew then it was just too enormous for me to manage and that worrying about her would swamp me. If I was swamped by worry, I would be useless to her. It was even possible that I would desert her, and that was the thing that could never happen. I decided that night I would take all the hours of my life that could so easily be spent worrying and instead I would try to help her.”
Patchett adds that she had been raised in Catholic school, by nuns who preached that “the world is saved through deeds, not prayer.” In situations where other people might either get sucked into other people’s dangerous actions by joining them or fretting over them, she let Lucy do her thing, whether it was spending too much money or having lots of (too) casual sex. But she also visited her at a hospital in Scotland, sent her updates about her submissions to American editors and magazines, drove to see her when Lucy went to get an abortion, and listened to her when she cried. Somehow, in a friendship that seemed to have so much intensity, Patchett balanced the fine line between support and worry and maintained a friendship that also gave back to her.
Patchett couldn’t ultimately save Lucy. She died of a heroin overdose at age 39. Briggs couldn’t save Berthia either–Berthia had to climb back over the railing onto the bridge himself and then go home to his life. We can’t change other people and we can’t rescue them either.
But we can keep them talking, and sometimes that’s enough. At the end of the StoryCorp interview, Briggs, the police officer, said one reason he was able to encourage Berthia to keep talking to him was because he’d been through depression himself. My friends who have experienced depression do the best job of encouraging me to talk out whatever manic or sad thoughts I’m trying to hide in my head. On this side of depressive anxiety and a divorce, I have an easier time encouraging my students to keep talking to me. Those who have faced and named their demons are able to sit with others while they do the same, which is why Briggs and Berthia are friends today. “You know, we’ve been through similar things in our lives and I’ve never been around anybody that’s seen me at a more vulnerable state,” Berthia said. Later he added, “And, you know, I don’t trust a lot of people. So for you to never judge me and just to have that trust, that’s what keeps us afloat and different from any other friendship.”
You can read and listen to the whole StoryCorps narrative here: http://www.npr.org/2015/03/06/390970491/ten-years-later-two-strangers-revisit-what-might-have-been-lost%26live%3D1?utm_source=facebook.com&utm_medium=social&utm_campaign=npr&utm_term=nprnews&utm_content=20150306