Bury Me Six Coffins Deep for When the Flood Comes
I'm going to rise first
I tell my students, ‘When you get these jobs that you have been so brilliantly trained for, just remember that your real job is that if you are free, you need to free somebody else. If you have some power, then your job is to empower somebody else. This is not just a grab-bag candy game.“
― Toni Morrison
I spend a lot of volunteer time in hospitals and (trauma/addiction) treatment centers. I meet people who are in their first moments of shock and people who are at the end of their line - just holding on by a thread.
In the ER - they’ve likely just experienced an incredible act of violence, terrible shock, or overdose - all of them fundamentally losses of control. As a crisis volunteer - you are showing up - not as a doctor, nurse, or police officer, and not as a therapist. Showing up is just saying: "I’m here to help you, and the way I can help you is by being present. I can listen to you, and I can validate your strength and affirm your choices and tell you how strong you are to have survived this [act of violence]/[terrible trauma].
I am just here to take care of you. I’m here to make sure that you’ve taken care of it. When you’re hungry, I’ll get you something to eat. When you’re thirsty, I’ll bring you water or Gatorade; if you’re cold, I’ll make sure you have a blanket; if you want to sleep - you’ll sleep - and I’ll sit outside the door and make sure no one wakes you up. I am now the most caring person you’ve ever met in your life, and I’m a stranger off the street.”
When I started my training, I thought: What a fucking intrusion! Why would anyone want that? I’m not a doctor. Why would anyone - in this vulnerable and horrific moment of pain - often caused by themselves, or someone close to them, someone trusted, their partner or spouse, child, or their friend - why would anyone want a stranger to show up and say, "I don’t have anything to say, but I’m just going to sit with you in the emergency room"?
People love it. People need it. It is life-changing. There are studies on how transformative it is. It makes a difference in the quality of care they receive; for sexual assault survivors - in how competently their evidence is collected (if they choose to report to law enforcement); in how their healing process goes; for addicts - in how successful long-term abstinence-based recovery works, and how much therapy they go to afterward.
When I think about survival, healing, and about finding ways forward, in any crisis, I think about that kind of connection. Not the context of - “Oh, we all just need to sit down at the same table and talk to each other and listen to each other, and then anxiety, trauma, disease, violence, and contempt for others will be over!” Atrocity is not over. Violence is not over. People continue to hurt others all the time, while they’re being hurt themselves. People die suddenly and tragically, and it tears a hole in the world of those that loved them.
It’s incredibly demanding to get close to the extreme and intimate pain of others. Society habitually distances itself or distance its people from that pain. I think that has to be recognized as a kind of limitation of the human condition. Our task, as people who address these issues, is to get a little closer and to form narratives that enable people to understand, be understood - to connect, which then allows them to heal and transform their lives. There is even a prominent defense mechanism of de-realization—the process of preventing, resisting making trauma real—which is what many people (who reach out to us) suffer from and want to overcome. There are other defense mechanisms, like repression or isolation or denial, all of which represent a form of psychic numbing.
There’s usefulness in recognizing that all of these things are related to feeling or not feeling. We all need to fully feel fear, death, grief, and loss to process them, to make them real so that we can go on with our lives. Grieving and mourning are part of the healing process. The establishment of some kind of physical presence with each other, of recognizing another as a full and legitimate self, and saying, “You are real. I see you. I see your experience. I hear your experience. I’m paying attention.” That matters.
Crisis counseling work has shown me over and over again that it doesn’t fix everything; it doesn’t undo anything. There are no-cure alls. Everything terrible that happened, happened. Some terrible things are still happening. Sometimes someone is dying. I’ve buried a lot of kids who were barely in their twenties - and it guts me every time.
Sustained grief, helplessness, fear, and terror rarely take the day off, if ever. Even the strongest hearts can experience compassion fatigue, without the bombardment of doom scrolling. And I'm tired of feeding the darkness. So tending directly to the pain of one person or community, at a time, in a way of being genuinely present is the most pragmatic way I know how to hope because I’ve seen lives changed and transformed (including my own). I’ve witnessed the miraculous on the hour.
As Rebecca Solnit writes: "Hope is not a lottery ticket that I sit on the couch with and clutch, feeling lucky. It is an ax I break down doors with in an emergency. Hope shoves me out the door because it takes everything I have to steer my future away from annihilation. Pragmatic hope focuses on what is possible, not promised."
When shame and grief strip me of joy and I feel fatalist - I don’t have to berate myself for being overwhelmed. In those brief moments - when hope seems out of reach - I just have to be hungry or curious. That way, I can get up tomorrow and continue living - so I can make more of a difference.
I don’t wish for the numbing comfort of oblivion or nihilism. I want the courage to remain, not to betray what is ours: this day and the light that lets us see it whole.
I swear - every day above ground is a goddamn miracle.
PS: Be gentle with your good-selves and others. I love you.