The ocean is badass. I’m mesmerized by the sun glowing through the turquoise and emerald waves, and the white frosting precarious on the tip of each as they roll in. The extent to which the tide comes so close and then can be so very far away in just a few hours is astonishing.
I’m on my annual trip to the Oregon coast. It’s my happy place. I finally find the little beachy bed and breakfast where I’m scheduled to stay. As I untangle myself from the knees-up-my-nose sized rental car, a puffy eyed man introduces himself. He lumbers down the stairs on the back deck.
He grabs my bag and tells me with less warning than I would have liked, that his mother, the inn owner, died just the day before.
As he carries in my bag he gives me the details. Then I meet the rest of the family. All. Of. Them. I spend the next few hours visiting with the sweet family about their recently deceased mother, their love for her, and the ways in which her beloved dog was showing his grief.
The daughter-in-law asks me what I do for a living.
I am careful about how I answer this question. Otherwise, as all counselors know, we are peppered with questions about their uncle Jack or grandma Harriet and what in hell might have made them do this or that.
But, I answer her question and spent my next five days on the beach hearing, “so, I know you’re not working, but do you think it’s weird that my dad…”. Or, “I know you’re on vacation, but what do I tell my brother when…”.
Unlike the waves, we can choose when to approach and when to withdrawal. In this case, I chose to approach. I was honored. Blessed, in fact, to be invited into their pain. They were struggling and swirling in the wake of her sudden death and they seemed comforted to be able to share.
They weren’t really seeking answers. They wanted someone to look them in the eye, listen, and let them be sad or angry or whatever. I rarely spoke. I just stayed. Without bitterness or resentment, I chose to stay and listen.
There’s nothing holy about my choice to engage in their pain. In years past, if such situations arose I would be annoyed and angry with a big, welcoming, fraudulent grin on my face. Congruency wasn’t my thing. I didn’t know I had the option to graciously say no and take care of my needs.
Retreating and advancing both have their time and place, as the ocean knows. Both have benefit and risk. Learning when and how to advance or retreat in relationships is a most essential piece of relational peace.
We learn to do this by listening to our truest motives and paying close attention to our own needs. Caring for others when our insides don’t match our outsides feels annoying to the giver and nauseating to the receiver.
I cannot give what I do not have. Giving out of hidden resentment is poisonous to both parties. Giving out of a heart of love is satisfying beyond measure.