Paying Attention
Bill McDonald’s Website Newsletter
May 2020 - Volume 20, No. 5
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Oh, the Comfort…

An English poet & novelist once wrote,

“Oh, the comfort — the inexpressible comfort of feeling safe with a person — having neither to weigh thoughts nor measure words, but pouring them all right out, just as they are, chaff and grain together; certain that a faithful hand will take and sift them, keep what is worth keeping, and then with the breath of kindness blow the rest away.”[1] 
Dinah Maria Mulock Craik,  A Life For A Life (1859)

Recently, when I first came across this quote, I was profoundly enchanted by it. It spoke to a hunger so many people carry, including myself - a hunger for that perfect friendship, an antidote to loneliness and alienation, a deep trust in someone else’s caring, and a place of protection in an often unsafe world. Yes, a place where we can feel safe, can belong.

The Hunger for a Safe place.

Often our deep hunger is formulated by the circumstances of our birth and/or geography. 

I recall a young client who had just birthed her first baby - telling me she had never ever felt such a tremendous outpouring of love as for that child, and then in turn for her husband as well. In that moment, she had become fully a mother, and a wife (not completely, but fully).

I recall many years ago attending a weekend clinical workshop, led by a peaceable and gentle tall Texan, hat, boots, drawl, (no gun belt), - who shared with us that just recently, after the birth of his first child, he stood on the hospital front steps and proclaimed aloud, “I’ll kill for that kid!” At a visceral archetypal level, he had become a father, a protector, a full husband. And I felt very comfortable in his presence.

Then there is the agony of parents and others who cannot make the world safe for the children, and/or who willingly sacrifice themselves in the process. 

In these days of the “Covid-19 pandemic” the language of “Hero” has taken on a visible and public meaning. (And so in turn emerges the shadow-hero, the Usurper.) We like to call them heroes; but they, in turn, want to be seen as just doing what they have to or have chosen to do, and call upon us to supply/support them with that they need to 1) do their work, and 2) help them survive. Please don’t burden them as heroes. They’re telling us this actually dishonors them. Rather let’s honor them by making sure they have what they need to do what they have chosen to do on our behalf.

How many can visit and feel the ghosts of Gettysburg, or the crying auras of parents and children for whom the hopes of a land of promise are crushed at our own southern border by a deliberately American-made “wall.” I’ve spoken elsewhere my thoughts of ‘gated communities’ where both sides can become prisons.

Is is Hope or Naïveté?

My first thought, beyond that of enchantment, was of its naïveté.  So much of my work with couples involves the loss of that safety, or at least of an increasing slippage. But I learn quickly this is not so much a matter of right and wrong. The 13th century Persian poet Jalāl ad-Dīn Muhammad Rūmī, has written,

“Out beyond ideas of rightdoing and wrongdoing there is a meadow. I’ll meet you there.”[2]

Our relationships exist in time, and time usually involves a rhythm (or a complex of rhythms) - and with the caveat that it may be seldom that each is in sync with the rhythm of the other.  It’s not by accident that the words that make a marriage a marriage, involve both (this) and (that).  (cf “in sickness and in health…” etc.)

And I’ve frequently seen couples begin to trust the rhythms of relationship, that it’s the larger entity, the marriage itself, or the larger goodwill of the relationship, or the watchful duty of others:

“Will each of you witnessing these promises do all in your power to uphold these two persons in their marriage?”  (and the people answer:  “We will.” )[3]

Though the word isn’t included in Ms. Craik’s quote, the presence of human “trust” is central.  There can be little comfort without trust. 

No claim to Permanence

Can trust be permanent?  Reality is that it takes two to make and maintain a marriage, and only one to unmake (betray) it. Whereas on one side marriage has an inherent strength to survive, on the other side (or as some call it, the shadow side) is it’s acute (and sometimes cruel) vulnerability.  

Part of the strength of marriage is an inherent ability to survive (weather) betrayal.[4]  

The question of Divorce

Also there are marriages that need permission to dissolve. It’s been honestly said that three of the most cruel places on earth are either wartime, prison or a bad marriage. (And parenthetically in our culture and world we have an abundance of each.)

And so, I can affirm, that part of Ms. Craik’s “comfort” is that the root of that comfort is that it has no claim to permanence.

Her “comfort” is not Naïve, nor is it just Hope.

Naïveté is not infantile, it is more the essence of being allowed to be fully human. It is in neither rightdoing, nor is it in wrongdoing. (See why I like Rumi?)

I myself am divorced, and by my own choice. Was it a ‘right’ decision? Yes, but not right as the opposite of wrong. That was many years ago. If I knew then what I know today, I might have chosen otherwise. There’s really no way for me to know. And I am on the whole comfortable living with that.

Hope in itself is nothing.  Semantically it’s incomplete until it must become hope “in” or hope “that” something….
[Speaking with over-simplicity…] For the Hebrew people, hope is that the Messiah will come.  For the Christian folk, hope is that Jesus is the Messiah. Hope for the Black people, and others with a deep “slave” knowledge, hope is often in the “over there,” the “beyond here.” And each has it’s gifts of comfort to bestow on us.  Each can allow me to be more truly human. Each has the resources to offer us

...the inexpressible comfort of feeling safe with a person…

Oh, the full reality and hope of such a grace!

Go out there, and

Pay Attention


[1] Dinah Maria Mulock Craik, (1826-1887)

[2] Hence my attraction to Rumi’s “meadow.”
(cf my March & April 2019 Newsletters).

[3] The Episcopal Church Book of Common Prayer (1979) p.425

[4] It’s no accident in my viewing of things, that most (if not all) of the world’s vast literary heritage involves a struggle with the reality of human betrayal. And that’s the bedrock and the beauty of Ms. Craik’s quote.

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Bill McDonald
Fenton, Michigan

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