“I see the sun and it’s rising slowly
For every shadow there’s a light
Open your eyes, I’ll come running
Open up to me, open up to me.”
–Green River Ordinance, Resting Hour
One by one, they came through the book signing line confessing their own broken dish moments.
“It was a plate.”
“It was a bowl – robin’s egg blue … I always loved that bowl.”
“It was my grandmother’s serving tray; I don’t know why I grabbed that one.”
“Mine was a crystal vase. The cleanup took hours.”
One by one, people confessed their broken dish moments. When I spoke of mine on stage a few minutes earlier I had no idea it would inspire others to step forward and say, “Me too.”
Perhaps we all have broken dish moments in some form or another. Perhaps I am not alone.
The last dish I broke was nineteen months ago. Before that one, it was a coffee pot … and before that, it was a cereal bowl. Before that, it was an object I can’t recall, but its pieces were especially jagged and sharp. All this time, I attributed these extreme reactions on a severe lack of self-care and on pushing myself beyond reasonable limits. But while huddled in a car with a dear friend on the way to see an Ingrid Michaelson concert, I uncovered something more.
“It happens when I am not being heard … when I am misunderstood,” I said about my broken dish moments. “I get to this dangerously helpless point when my need to be heard is so strong that I feel I must take drastic measures.”
This is me sending up a flare. I am in distress.
I thought back to the broken dish moments shared by those who came through the book signing line. As people confessed their breaking points and collateral damage, there was one common factor … there was a resounding echo … there was a universal need.
Don’t walk away.
Yes, they were weary and depleted when they fell apart at the seams … but more importantly, they were desperate to be heard.
Exactly three days after that revelation with my friend in the car, my husband and I were watching the nightly news. It transpired into a heated political discussion. I was very passionate about my beliefs, and my voice became raised, and I felt my face become flushed. Although there were plenty of doors to slam, papers to throw, and dishes to break, I didn’t resort to extremes as I did in the past.
Because he heard me.
He was listening.
We did not see eye to eye on this particular issue, but he held me, and I let myself be held.
Suddenly every broken dish moment, beginning at age ten, came back to me in full force.
I’d flung myself to the ground kicking and screaming when I was not being heard.
I’d peeled out of a parking lot and sped 80 mph when I was not being heard.
I’d hit my fist with a steering wheel until it bruised when I was not being heard.
I’d thought about hurting myself when I was not being heard.
Drastic measures indeed.
But the truth is, out of all the things that make me feel most loved, listening is number one. When I am heard, I am loved.
I am quite certain I am not the only one who feels this way.
Over the past month, I have processed this realization about my breaking dish moments. I have paid close attention to the way my spouse and I communicate. Somewhere along the line, I told him that when my father listened to me he always looked into my eyes. Eye contact mean listening fully and attending undividedly. I notice my husband is trying.
Somewhere along the line, I told him that when my voice gets higher and he begins to walk away, it feels like a dagger. Walking away while I am speaking feels like a punch in the gut. I notice my husband is trying.
Somewhere along the line, I told him he doesn’t have to solve my problem or know what to do. Just nodding, relating, and saying, “How can I help?” are transformative. I notice my husband is trying.
As I have come to understand this inherent need to be heard in my moments of vulnerability, I am seeing others’ extreme reactions in a new light–particularly those who want me to hear them most.
My younger daughter complained of a pain in her leg for a solid week. A physical therapist found her calf muscle to be very tight. After determining it was a shin splint, the therapist showed us some exercises we could do at home. My daughter did not participate in running during swim team conditioning for two weeks while her leg healed.
When I informed my daughter it was time to resume the running portion of practice, her reaction was over the top. Her voice rose and shook. Hot tears came streaming down her face. As I was about to stand firm on this issue, I stopped myself. I saw what was happening there.
This is her dish-breaking moment.
This is her wanting me to hear her.
This is her asking me to stand in her shoes.
“Okay,” I said calmly. “It appears you are still feeling pain. We’ll give it another day.”
The color came back to her face. She quickly regained composure, as if embarrassed by her extreme reaction. (Boy, did I know the feeling.)
“Thank you, Mama. Thank you,” she said hugging me. Two days later, my child began running again, being careful not to overdo it.
My daughter still asks me to “roll” her leg in the evening as the therapist instructed. As I do, I think about what the therapist said as she demonstrated the technique. “Upward strokes brings the inflammation to a place where it can be flushed from the body.”
I think that’s what listening does.
Unlike dismissing, shaming, or shutting down, which exacerbates the pain, listening eases it … releases it … comforts it … and even heals it.
Although it is mid-December and there are definitely easier and more festive topics I could have written about today, I believe this one – listening to release pain – is what we need most need right now in the world.
In fact, there’s a good chance that in coming days you’ll see someone losing her grip … dissolving into a pile tears … resorting to drastic measures to be heard.
When you see this happening, please fight the urge to walk away. Please resist the inclination to shut it down, hush it up, or stop it with shame or hostility.
Instead get closer and say, “I am here. Tell me what’s troubling you. Maybe you don’t even know, but we will figure it out together. I am listening.”
And if you find the distressed, unreasonable, and maniacal voice is coming from your own chest, please resist the urge to grab the closest object and hurl it. Instead, hold your own hand and say to yourself: This is me in distress. This is me sending up a flare. Let me muster all my strength to ask someone to hear me. This is important.
Imagine for a moment if this year were to close on a listening note—us listening to ourselves … us listening to the ones we love … us listening to the ones who cross our path. To end 2016 knowing the exercise of listening is a remedy for pain could make for a beautiful start to 2017.
Let’s not worry so much about purchasing that mind-blowing gift or finding that perfect outfit for the party or retrieving that long-lost recipe during the final days of December. Instead, let’s remember listening is love.
Especially when the person in front of us or within us is falling apart.
There may be less gifts to open as a result of us spending the remaining days of December focused on listening—but perhaps if we do, there won’t be so many broken pieces to pick up.
Listen with open eyes, attentive ears, and a whole heart.
Listen even when it sounds like complete and utter despair.
Because that’s when listening is needed the most.
Rachel Macy Stafford is a certi ed special education teacher with a Master’s Degree in education and ten years of experience working with parents and children. In December 2010, this life-long writer felt compelled to share her journey to let go of distraction and grasp what really matters by creating the blog “Hands Free Mama.” Using her skills as a writer, teacher, and encourager, Rachel provides readers with simple, non-intimidating, and motivating methods to let go of distraction and connect with their loved ones. Rachel’s work has been featured on CNN, Good Morning America, Global News, USA Today, TIME.com, MSN.com, The Huf ngton Post, and Reader’s Digest. Her blog currently averages one million visitors a month. Rachel’s new book, HANDS FREE MAMA, is a New York Times Bestseller.