If I start crying, don't stop me...a gathering lesson on how to be whole

If I start crying, don't stop me...a gathering lesson on how to be whole

I first posted this article to my Patreon page on Oct 9th. If you’d like to get early access to posts, podcasts, videos and thoughts, you can become a Patron for as little as $1 per month. All proceeds from my Patreon page go to the Movember Foundation and, in the future, will also be pledged to forest regeneration projects.

Nature, however, requires that we have the darkness of our painful feelings and that we respect it and make a bold place for it in our lives. Without its recognition and acceptance there can be no true sense of life’s great depth, wherein lies our capacity to love, to create and to make meaning.
— From: Introduction to "The Prayer Tree" by Michael Leunig, 1991

It had been a brilliant two days with fellow Movember [1] Community Ambassadors. Ferreted away in Movember's hip London HQ, I’d learnt a lot about the Foundation and the state of men’s health, but mostly I’d been inspired by the people in the room. 

Many of Movember’s Ambassadors are cancer survivors or people who have been touched by the cancer that afflicted their loved ones. Their incredible commitment to help others is humbling and inspiring. And then there was Elvin.

Elvin was something of an enigma for me. A solid, well-built man, I couldn’t guess his age. He’s survived prostate cancer and it seems the experience has left scars. On a wholly different level, the experience also seems to have created an incredible, incandescent light inside him and for ninety per cent of our time together Elvin seemed to be in a constant life and death struggle to contain it. He didn’t say much but he clearly wanted to. He was flaming with the desire of it most of the time…or so it seemed. When he did, it didn’t always make sense to me. It wasn’t always on the same topic that was being discussed or if it was, he seemed to travel on some wild tangent. After so many hours together, I was getting ready to head home and I’d still not fathomed Elvin.

One of the Ambassadors then shared a video. Jules had lost her husband to prostate cancer and her daughter had made this deeply moving video. As I watched, I was distracted by Elvin, sitting a metre or so away to my left. He was fighting a losing battle with himself, trying not to cry. It wasn’t a gentle battle. There was a storm there. Finally he let go and sobbed uncontrollably. So powerful had the short video been for us all, but for Elvin, the cage door had been ripped clean from its hinges.

Right after the video ended he burst to his feet and it all came exploding out. With an impassioned, magical series of words – I don’t want to call it a speech – Elvin shared his own experience of prostate cancer and how crucially important it was to get out there, speak about it and raise money for Movember’s programs in order to help stop other men dying too young. He was on fire.

At one point, after he’d gathered himself, the emotions came again and he almost yelled into the room, “If I start crying, don’t stop me!” It would be a brave person to try. Elvin continued and we were blown away by the power of his words and physical presence. As I left for home, I marvelled at the feeling of having been plugged into an electrical socket.

“If I start crying, don’t stop me!”

That was mid-September.

Just last week I was reminded again of Elvin’s words. My friend Julien and I host “gatherings” in the mountains where we invite participants to discuss their values and their truths and help them explore whether they’re living true to them. If we’re ever going to change our path, that seems an important starting point. The gatherings involve a lot of introspection; people look back to the great but also the challenging times in their lives. Sometimes, emotions come.

Last week, emotions were coming quite strongly for a few of the participants but another participant felt it necessary to comfort the tearful whenever there was a break in traffic. When it happened once, I ignored it. When it happened twice, I pledged to speak about it but before I could, it happened again and I had to jump in. The comforter was doing it out of true goodness of heart but each time, it killed all introspection and emotion stone dead. I spoke to the group about the importance of letting the person be, not telling them how great they were, not telling them something positive, not telling them anything in fact, just being there for them.

I went home and thought about it more when I woke in the middle of the night, something I rarely do. I remembered Elvin, “If I start crying, don’t stop me,” he’d said. I lay awake pondering this and couldn’t get past the image of a tea bag. You’ve got to soak in it, I thought. Stay with the darkness because only then might you create something strong, something good. We all have darkness and light in our lives but so often we reject the darkness. It’s an active thing, we lock it away. Earlier that morning, we’d read Michael Leunig’s introduction to “The Prayer Tree”

Nature requires that we be soulful and therefore requires a dimension within us where darkness and light may meet and know each other. Mornings and evenings somewhere inside, with similar qualities to the mornings and the evenings of the earth.
— From: Introduction to "The Prayer Tree" by Michael Leunig, 1991

Mornings and evenings, darkness and light. As I lay there, it struck me that bringing me light when I’m wallowing in darkness robs me of my chance to be whole; every day needs a morning and an evening to be truly a day. Every soul needs darkness and light. Comforting me when I’m despairing is almost a violent act - with your kind words, you wrench me back from the darkness. “Come into the light,” you say but then I can’t be truly me.

Elvin’s words came again, “If I start crying, don’t stop me.” Elvin has seen the view from the edge of life. His words were so powerfully delivered and so powerfully received because Elvin knows his darkness. I hardly know him but I have this incredible sense that he is whole. It inspired me.

Next morning, energised despite the lack of sleep, I took some tea bags to our gathering. I shared my waking thoughts from the previous evening. I explained the metaphor about how getting down and soaking in the darkness, as a tea bag soaks in water, might enable us to be truly whole. I cut a tea bag in half to symbolise what we do when we rob someone of the opportunity to get to know this darkness and the tea spilled out everywhere – you can’t make a good cup of tea like that! It was a silly example but we can be too clever with our metaphors sometimes. Robbing people of that opportunity to soak robs them of their chance to be truly themselves, to be with both the mornings and the evenings of their lives, the traditional times, as Leunig notes, for the singing of birds, “times of graceful light whereby the heart may envisage its poetry and describe for us what it sees.

It was an important lesson from our gathering. It had been ever present in previous gatherings but had never come so clearly into view. I’m grateful to the participant who had sought to bring light to darkness. Only then could we grasp the absolute necessity of welcoming the darkness, of embracing it, of being with it. Only by doing so could I reconnect so powerfully with Elvin’s words, “If I start crying, don’t stop me.

I think Elvin’s words and the lesson from our gathering are important. 

Just yesterday, the world was treated to the latest IPCC Report suggesting we’re all in serious poo with the forthcoming impacts of climate change. I read tweet after tweet about the need to fight, to stay positive in the face of what looks like being very dismal, dark times ahead – “we can still do it!” I thought about Elvin’s dance with death and the need for a quiet soaking in the evening darkness.

Perhaps we need to embrace our despair and soak a while. If we can, perhaps we can become the truly whole people we’re going to need to be if we’re to find any way forward, any way home, any way to life. Perhaps soaking in our despair and having a good cry as we embrace the darkness of our climate changed future might open the door to the compassionate, respectful and humble discussions we’re going to need to deal with what’s ahead.

Thank you Elvin, thank you Leunig, thank you you.

[1] Movember is a global foundation promoting men’s health. Founded in Australia in 2003, it supports programs on men’s mental health and suicide prevention, prostate and testicular cancer and getting men moving.

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