Tuesday, March 20, 2007

On Being a Silent Witness

I promised new content and I haven't been able to make good on that promise until now. I was harried all day with work and barely had time to breathe. I am supposed to be grading right now, but I am seeing today's entry as much needed therapy before I plunge back into work.

What has been preoccupying me today is how often we are our own worst enemies. I don't necessarily mean that we sabotage ourselves or we sell ourselves short, though we do that too, but rather we harm ourselves when we believe that we have all the skills and answers we need to get through difficult times.

I was writing a letter of recommendation today for a student and the letter required that I describe how she handles difficult situations. When I thought about this particular student, it occurred to me that she handled stress and uncertainty well, precisely because she knew how to ask for help. She didn't try to weather the storm all by herself or wall herself off from others, wanting to figure out the answers on her own. Her ability to seek for outside help strikes me as fundamental to well being.

So many of us resist seeking help or advice from others because we believe it makes us vulnerable. Well, it does. But, what is wrong with being vulnerable? Why do we inherit this horrible view that to ask for help is to be weak, to let down one's guard and expose what we are not presently capable of resolving? I would say that this sort of behavior is gendered, i.e., that men exhibit it far more than women, but I think deep down it is fairly equally distributed. Perhaps men are less likely to seek help or advice for those things that define masculinity, i.e. career, finances, home improvement. But, it seems to me that women are as guilty of refusing help on matters that define femininity. Maybe I am wrong, but . . .

Nonetheless, I can't help being baffled by this. Mind you, I am not exactly excellent at seeking help. But, I see how damaging it is in others. You watch someone struggling with a problem, with grief, or with uncertainty, and then refuse comfort, help, or just plain witnessing. And yet, without that support the problem magnifies. The magnification mostly takes place in one's own mind. Without any outside perspective, without context, and without the wisdom of others, we let our anxiety create monsters that then try to slay us.

How do you tell someone that whatever it is they think they are accomplishing by going it alone, they aren't? You can't. When I first read the work of Martin Heidegger, particularly Being and Time, I was helped by his distinction between "leaping in" and "leaping ahead." The former is the tendency we have to try and rescue others from themselves, from their anxiety. By leaping in, we take over the struggle, we try to solve the problem for the other, and consequently we don't truly respect her. Whereas the leap ahead is a way of empowering another to withstand the anxiety and to work through it to find new possibilities of existence. Perhaps leaping ahead is like being a silent witness to someone too bound up with what is immediately preoccupying them to see the vast horizon in front of them: the wealth of possibilties and paths she can explore.

But how do you leap ahead?