Sitting in the Dark.

I must have gotten that cock-eyed look on me that dogs get when something surprises or confuses them.  Brook’s mom, a fellow baseball parent back in the day, was passing the innings chatting up the Short Stop’s dad (me).  I can’t recall the context anymore, but I remember the words she chose to give me a peek at adistinctively middle-aged female experience. “One of the things about being in my fifties, is that I have to get used to being invisible.”  

There was a kind of sadness to her as she described her newfound reality of both men and women’s eyes looking over, beyond, and past her in public settings.  I don’t recall my precise response, but I do recollect feeling like a dudewho was suddenly out of his depth.  Looking back, I believe that I reacted with something that attempted to look beyond, over, and past her vulnerable, honest sharing as in, “I think you’re plenty interesting and pretty!  …and I’ll bet if I took a poll of all the people here…they’d say so too!”  

Rather than allowing her to say more about her experience…in her time…at her pace…I’m afraid I succeeded in minimizing her point of view.  Consciously, I was trying to ease her pain.  Unconsciously, I should have been asking myself, “Am I doing this for her?  Or to make myself feel less awkward, or to escape the possibility that this phenomenon could also happen to men…like me?  

The dynamic in play with Brook’s mom and me is frequently on display in receiving lines at funeral visitations.  In every grief support group, a portion of the first session is dedicated to playing a list of “The Dumbest Comments Made at the Wake.”  In these groups, tears of sadness are replaced with tears of laughter and groans as group members recount dazzling one liners they had to endure as friends, relatives and acquaintances attempted to “ease their pain” like I attempted to ease Brook’s mom’s pain.  “God never gives you more than you can handle!” (Delivered with a loving pat to the hand).  “They’re in a better place now.”  (Begging the question, “What was so bad about being with me?”).  The worst I ever heard was a line delivered to a bereaved young mom and dad, “You can still have another one!”  (Another way to say that one:  “Cheer up sad sacks!”).

That story about Brook’s mom came to mind, because last week, I met with a sixty-year old woman colleague, who came to my office in her coronavirus-lockdown-look of sweat clothes and messed up hair.  She laughed and said, “It’s so freeing at my age being invisible.”  Once again, my side-ways Labrador Retriever-look causedher to unpack the same phrase I had heard over a decade ago.  “When you’re a young woman,” she explained, “you’re always aware of society’s eyes on you!”  She went on, “You’re supposed to look, dress, and act a certain way.  When you look in a mirror, as a younger woman, you find yourself gazing through society’s eyes at yourself! At my age,” she smiled, “it’s so refreshing not to give a shit.”  With that she laughed.  

This Sunday, in church, the first reading wasselected from the Jewish scriptures that is normally proclaimed at the Christmas Eve liturgy (Isaiah 8:23 – 9:3).  I was drawn to that famous line, “The people sitting in darkness have seen a great light.”  

This line indicates that Isaiah knew what mystics of many religious traditions have been telling us through the ages.  To get from where Brook’s mom started at fifty years old to where my colleague arrived at sixty takes time, patience, and a courageous choice to not flee the darkness.  What Brook’s mom was attempting to do with me, was to invite me to step into the dark with her so that she could process this weighty human experience.  What Isaiah knew, what the author of The Cloud of Unknowing knew, was that those existential moments where we are being asked to go where we would prefer not to go are the royal roads to spiritual and emotional development.  

After all these years, I am finally coming to know the value of slowing down and sitting still when the darkness arrives.  It is not my job to chase the darkness away for a friend, or colleague.  Better to enter into the darkness with them, and to sit respectfully as they share it.  “How is that for you?”  delivered with a no BS compassion, and authenticity is quite enough.  In its own way, it is a profound form of contemplative spirituality.  

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