The Black Dog (10 years on) 6: SO YOU WANT TO HELP…
I’m glad. In fact, if you didn’t, I’d be quite concerned for you! But be warned. This isn’t for the faint-hearted. It will try your patience and frustrate your sympathies. You’ll definitely have days when you’ve had enough. Perhaps months. So you’ll shrug that you did everything you could but to no avail. [There are only so many hours in a day, and you’ve got your own issues.] So you’ll assume it needs someone else to take up the baton. If that’s the case, then may I make a gentle plea with you? Don’t get involved in the first place…
Is that too harsh? Perhaps. We all need friendships at different levels of intimacy and intensity – a set of concentric relationships, I suppose. To be a friend on a middle-to-outer ring is good and not to be knocked. But to be a real support to the black-dogged takes time and purpose. It can’t be done lightly, quickly or by the occasional gesture. For those may actually cause far more hurt than not.
I’m sure this is one reason an encounter with anyone else in the cave is such a blessing. So little needs to be said or explained – there is an instinctive understanding that persevering friendship is the only way. That said, this blessing can be mixed – the potential to drag one another down is real, and that needs watching. So we shouldn’t rely on them alone. We need others outside the cave. But that’s the problem – it all seems so remote, so unlikely, so (dare I say it)… crazy. They seem fine on the outside…
Accompany… but don’t fix (please!)
I mentioned previously that the voices of those outside the cave sound muffled or confused from the inside. So more often than not, the tone is the primary thing that will be heard (however cogent, wise and helpful the words). Please take care what you say. And if you are even remotely harsh or critical, the consequences could be serious. Please note – I’m not saying this justifies any behaviour or a lack of challenge (see the 3rd post again). Just make sure you know what you’re doing.
All I can say is that after 10 years of cycles and fluctuations (thank God it’s not been a constant intensity), during which I’ve tried lots of different fixes, potions and activities, some aspects haven’t gone. My main goal is to find better ways of living and coping. So please don’t tell me what I really need to do, or suggest that if only “I just tried…”, or tell me what your best friend’s cat did after which it was sorted. We’re all different. Some swear by medication; others find it useless; still others (like me) find it gives an equilibrium that enables one to benefit from additional therapies. It’s complicated.
If there was a word that I love best for how friendship is key for the black-dogged it is this: accompany. It entails a humility, an equality, a humanity. It’s no accident that I’ve always loved the earliest name for following Christ. It is ‘THE WAY’. It dates back to the gospels – so much so that Mark seems to exploit the word’s ambiguity: it’s more than just a physical description. The black dog may not be your problem – but it’s guaranteed you have others! We’re all in this life thing together. So let us accompany one another.
Endure… but don’t assume (please!)
I think one of the most frustrating things for people closest to me (it would absolutely drive me nuts – actually, now I think about it, it does) is that it’s not possible to assume that what was said last time has stuck. Sometimes I don’t remember conversations (that’s a bit alarming). But more often than not, I’ve stopped believing them. I spiral into the trap of assuming that something must have changed the situation so much that what was said before has been somehow nullified. Or that the person was not completely sincere. Or actually lied.
Unfair isn’t it? Your motives and intentions were so good. Yet you still get repaid by getting your integrity and sincerity callously impugned. Best to shake the dust off your feet and move on? If you feel like it, I suppose.
But remember – in my head there’s a raging blizzard of competing thoughts and darkened narratives. And the black dog will impugn away…
I cannot tell you how often I need reassurance. Pathetic really, isn’t it? Is that the sensitive but prideful ego constantly requiring molly-coddling… or a perspective on reality that’s got dangerously warped and corroded? I leave you to decide. This is one of the key reasons why time and loyalty are crucial. What I agreed yesterday may be the furthest thing from my mind tomorrow.
Take initiatives… but don’t manage (please!)
I hate asking for help. Always have. I’ve always preferred to give it! Probably partly my stiff-upper-lip background where one is taught the so-called virtue of self-sufficiency. Ridiculous really. I was at pains in my recent book What Makes Us Human to show how absurd and damaging this is. I’ve had to learn that the hard way. I really do need others.
As I’ve said, a handful of friends have allowed me to send them emergency texts when things were especially heavy. That’s great. But this has all brought home to me the absolute necessity of being part of a grace-filled community. Isolation is utterly disastrous (NOT the same thing as solitude, which as an INFP (!), is something I often crave). But without grace, others are always a threat to the black-dogged. Who knows why the black dog has reared his foul head? But it is almost certainly going to cause recoil from others. Especially if you sense them trying to ‘manage’ you; or making decisions on your behalf ‘for your own good’ but in your absence.
What does grace mean in this context, therefore? It means acceptance at the very least. Acceptance of brokenness and the propensity to f*** things up. But it also means surprises. Not in the made-you-jump sense. But in the unexpected-joy sense. In the I-don’t-deserve-this sense.
However, for me, (and I suspect many are different in this regard) the longing for grace means one thing above all. SAFETY. Again, it’s no accident that this comes up in my writing. For my chapter on church community in A Wilderness of Mirrors, I borrowed the title from a Larry Crabb book but added a necessary question mark: The safest place on earth?
Being with people who are not (aware of how they themselves are also) broken feels very scary indeed. It feels like you might break even more. BUT… the relief, the joy, the reassurance of being with people who are… well that makes it all a little bit more bearable.
And it helps to plant one more step… along the Way. The route of which was laid out by its pioneer: the one who was broken and despised not just FOR us but WITH us.
But hey… I thought that’s exactly what this whole Christian thing was meant to be. For us all.