My friend Daisy writes about putting yourself intentionally and deliberately in Close Proximity with people who are suffering. She’s adopted a mantra: You gotta go there to know there and she educates people about causes that: feed the homeless, provide medical care, and advocate for marginalized populations. She’s a Hope Giver and says putting yourself in Close Proximity to people who need it will change their lives.
When Daisy mentioned Close Proximity a few weeks ago, I remembered a story I read in life is a verb by Patti Digh. Digh was teaching about Holding Presence. She asked, How do we hold love for others, with no agenda? How are we changing the people around us by how we respond to them, or don’t?
She shared a story from Marion Woodman and rather than get it wrong, I’ll share the entire story.
During a stay in India, Marion became sick with dysentery and captive in her hotel room for weeks. Finally, desperate to escape the room, she gingerly made her way to the hotel foyer one afternoon to sit and write a letter to her husband. Sitting near the end of a long, empty couch, she began to write.
Although there were other seats available, a very large brown woman came and squeezed between Marion and the end of the couch, so close that their arms were touching, so close it made it difficult for Marion to write.
Marion scooted away, angry at the invasion of her space. The woman scooted closer, pushing up against her: “Every time I moved, she moved, until we ended up at the other end of the couch.”
Once she stopped moving away, Marion realized what a nice, big, warm arm the woman had. And so they sat, a thin bird of a sickly white woman and a big brown woman, arm-to-arm. They shared no common language, so they sat in silence. Marion gave in to the broad warm arm, the presence of the other, and relaxed into her.
The next day she went again to the hotel foyer to write. And again, the woman came and silently sat next to her, touching her. And the third day. And the fourth day, and Marion’s health improved.
This couch dance continued for a week. One day a man appeared as the two women finished their silent, warm-armed vigil.
“You’re all right now. My wife won’t come back tomorrow,” he said to Marion, nodding toward her couch compatriot. Your wife? She thought to herself, startled. “Why is she here in the first place?” she asked.
Marion was unprepared for his quiet, simple answer. “I saw you were dying and sent her to sit with you. I knew the warmth of her body would bring you back to life.” He said.
It took a moment for the magnitude of his message and the enormity of what these two strangers had done for her to sink in.
“She did save my life,” Marion said, quietly in recounting the story. “That this woman would take the time to sit with me and, most importantly, that I could receive it . . . That is relatedness.”
This is what it means to Hold Presence for others.
A dear person in my life is under a doctor’s care for depression. My friend said that during the intake meeting, the doctor asked if she could sit beside my friend on the couch to go over some things. At first, my friend didn’t want to sit by her–or anyone–but she agreed, since they had to look at papers together. My friend told me, “Her proximity to me felt like a warm, snuggly blanket.” The doctor Held Presence for my friend and put herself in Close Proximity to her. It made my friend feel safe and comforted.
I read a devastating article about a suicide and in the article a childhood friend of the girl who took her life wrote: “I can’t help but to think . . . proximity would’ve allowed me to make, maybe the slightest difference…. Forgive me!” She wished she had put herself into Close Proximity because she realized, too late, that her friend needed it.
I couldn’t hear and read these stories about Close Proximity within the short amount of time I did and not wonder what I’ve done recently to deliberately get into someone’s space and Hold Presence for them.
What does it require of my character (or anyone’s) to be able to do so?
I believe it takes vulnerability.
Brene Brown’s career is based on researching and teaching the lessons of vulnerability. She defines vulnerability not as weakness, but as uncertainty, risk and emotional exposure– the experiences and feelings we face every day that are not optional. Our only choice is a question of engagement. She writes, “Our willingness to own and engage with our vulnerability determines the depth of our courage and the clarity of our purpose; the level to which we protect ourselves from being vulnerable is a measure of our fear and disconnection.”
How often do we lose ourselves in the criticism of others? All the time! Even though we are socialized by our culture to do so and to define our worth in the fickle opinions of others, our playing small does not serve the world. We spend a lot of energy avoiding hard topics. We spend a lot of energy avoiding connections, emotional exposure, and misspent energy. What difference would we make if we Held Presence for others and put ourselves in Close Proximity to them?
I’ve challenged myself to put myself into Close Proximity with people who might need it. I don’t know what this challenge is going to look like yet because I think the opportunities to Hold Presence for people might be spontaneous. Will I do something easy like turn away from my computer screen and keyboard when someone needs to talk to me–either in person or on the phone? That’s more like good etiquette, but I’ll do it. Will it be giving hugs to people who need them? Hugs aren’t really my thing, so that would be a challenge. Maybe it will be going to someone’s house to visit them or babysitting to help out. It might be something major, those were easy, but we’ll see.
What do you think you can do? What do you do already? I would love to know.
I’m going to try to pay attention to the possibilities. It’s a start to being able to lend a strong, warm arm.