I was in the big general hospital, being evaluated by the psych staff for suicidal depression. The night before I had come precariously close to killing myself. At age 72, part of my crisis had to do with age. “I’m used up. I have nothing left to offer and no one is interested in what I do have. I might as well not be here.”
I was in one of the rooms in the E.R. with my really good buddy John, who had ordered the ambulance for me that morning. A young woman who identified herself as Bailey had come in with her little typewriter to register me. My first judgment about Bailey was kind of harsh (“kind of mousy”) – but then I was not in a real positive state of mind.
Which made even more surprising what happened next. Halfway through Bailey registering me, I stopped her and said, “You’re a very real person.” “What?” “Yeah – you’re genuine. You know, for the native Americans that was the highest compliment: ‘You’re a real human being.'”
“You’re a real human being.”
Bailey pulled herself up a couple of inches taller, pointed her finger into the air and said “Authentic.” I had gotten her. I had affirmed her for something that actually meant a lot to her. It was not some generic thing like “You’re a nice person.” It felt really good to her because she felt seen. She was doing that which she very much wants to do.
Bailey left. I pointed my arm towards John and – with tears running down my face, as they are right now – said emphatically “That’s what I do.” And for just a little while the charge “I have nothing left to contribute” had no power over me.
Fifty years ago, when I was 22, I was learning a form of peer counseling called Re-Evaluation Counseling. A big premium in RC was placed on “validation” – saying nice things to each other in ways that would really have an impact on the other person. I will literally never forget the time that Mio Archer, a lovely young woman who had been doing this stuff for a while and was good at it, told me “You’re the handsomest man I’ve ever met.”
Now I honestly think that accurately I’m pretty average-looking – sometimes I think worse than that. And now that I’m 72, there’s a whole extra “old” thing that contaminates the whole picture. But ever since Mio said that amazing thing, there’s one little part of my brain that thinks, “What if? What if I actually am good looking?” It’s pretty cool to think about. Mio changed my relationship with my own appearance for good.
And now my new friend Diana – my favorite person in our whole seniors building – likes to say that she thinks I’m handsome.
I have for fifty years devoted myself to learning how to affirm people in ways that stick – and noticing what it is in affirmations from other people that cause them to go under the radar, to do an end run around my logical brain and land where I live.
Last week i was in the hospital for suicidal depression. My most recent attempt to launch a course that could make me feel like I had value – “Affirmative Poetry”, kinda like this stuff but in some very big ways not (I’ll write about it later) – had been a colossal bust, one person came out. I felt like a complete waste of space. Pair that with the “old” thing and I felt really useless. I said all this to the social worker on the unit. She – a very smart 65 year old who has specialized in studying the spiritual life of seniors, said, “Your mission changes at every stage of your life. It’s not the same in your 70’s as it was in your 60’s. Your challenge is to clarify for yourself what your mission is now.”
The idea that I might still have a mission – and that it would be unique to my 70’s – rocked me back on my heels, shaped my whole experience of my six days in the hospital.
My overall mission – for my whole life – has something to do with validation. The particular spin for my 70’s is stuff I still need to ferret out. Writing this blog – and dialogue with you, my readers – will help. Welcome aboard.
Words can hurt and words can heal. Anyone can develop powerful tools for “Healing validations” – affirmative words that make a difference in another person’s life. This blog is devoted to developing that skill.