Following my workshop a student came up to me and asked, “My dog just died two weeks ago, and I am so sad. How I can get over it?”
At that moment I felt so vulnerable and wanted to run from her question by claiming that I couldn't help her because I was the one who needed help. I said, “That’s exactly what I want to know.” But I quickly realized that I needed to respond to her plea. I remember how Carl Jung said that his patients would often bring him exactly the problem that he needed to work on himself. And I like how Erich Fromm calls responsibility one of the key elements of love. As I age I increasingly feel the need to be responsible, as an elder or mentor who has wisdom gained from life experience, and therefore the ability to humbly respond. I knew that this was a golden opportunity for me as well as for her. I paused for a moment before speaking.
“I’m trying to think about what my dog Duke gave me, and what it is that I am now missing. I could love Duke unconditionally—it was an “undefended” love—I could give myself to him completely. I miss that beautiful feeling and wonder, ‘how can I have that same love now?’ I feel that life is challenging me to give my love unconditionally to others, not just to Duke. Giving love to Duke was very easy. It was such a pure and simple relationship. With humans it’s more complicated, more difficult. But I feel that this is what life is demanding of me now. Loving Duke was enough to get me through life but it was also a refuge where I hid from embracing the great suffering in the world."
The young woman’s eyes were wet and warm, and she thanked me.
In living with the loss of my loved one, I am also challenged to do what Victor Frankl wrote about when he described the way in which he and others survived the Nazi concentration camps. When they could no longer change the conditions of their lives they were forced to change themselves. They did this by changing their question from, “What do I want from life? to “What does life want from me?”
Reflecting now on the wonder of how we can use our own lives simply by sharing what we are experiencing and learning with each other. This vulnerability brings the rich reward of feeling our deep human connections and finding courage in engaging together in our common struggle. Teaching what I need to learn, and learning as I teach.