Fumbling for Flashlights

“Possessing flashlights and occasionally knowing where to aim them has to be enough for us. Fortunately, none of us can save anybody. But we all find ourselves in this dark, windowless room, fumbling for grace and flashlights. You aim the light this time, and I’ll do it the next.” Greg Boyle

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I love Greg Boyle’s image of humanity in a dark room fumbling for grace and flashlights. To me this captures the essence of our existence. There is much darkness around us – both mysterious and sometimes dangerous. But we are not without light either. There are “flashlights” and grace available.

Greg, or Father Boyle, or just “G” as he’s known to so many, is the developer of America’s most successful gang intervention program. He knows darkness, but he’s also one of the people who are shining lights in our world. If you read about his work with Homeboy Industries you’ll likely experience admiration for his humility, compassion, and strength. In the midst of a LA’s epidemic gang warfare, he is living grace and pointing lights, although he’s quick to point out how the homies and homegirls of the projects have done the same for him. It’s the same pattern for all of us: sometimes I get the chance to hold and aim a light for another person; lots of times I need someone to hold and aim it for me.

A struggle for “professional” helpers, is keeping your ego from getting caught up in ideas of fixing and saving people. Apparent success in these efforts makes it even worse because it traps you in the idea of actually being able to make people change or rescue them from themselves. But this isn’t just a problem for psychologists and psychiatrists. All of us ordinary folk are confronted with the temptation to try to become more than helpers in the lives of those around us. Care gets confused for responsibility. Some of the expectations we place on ourselves become a hindrance rather than a help.

Years ago when I was training at a Detroit hospital, I started having some unusual but concerning health problems. As my own physician ran through the options and his best guess at what the source of my difficulty was, I began to feel overwhelmed by the idea of living life with a chronic and potentially disabling condition. I left the appointment and straight away went back to work. A little of my vulnerability from the news I’d received was decreased by putting on my badge and white doctor’s coat. I imagined that my “armour” was back on and I was ready to take on the world. As I started rounding on my assigned patients for the day I met up with my supervising psychologist. He watched me in each hospital room as I worked. On one particular case I could tell from his facial expression that he was concerned about my interactions with the patient. We left together and made our customary return to the nurse’s station to update the medical chart.

As was so often his way, my supervisor approached me with grace and gentle wisdom. I had been too aggressive. The simple solutions I offered resembled “just pull yourself up by your bootstraps”. I give advice with an authority that made me feel better, but was likely of little use to this poor soul in the hospital bed. My supervisor reminded me that it is so tempting to use our professional skills to impress, to make ourselves feel strong, and to overcome our personal feelings of vulnerability. We sometimes create an illusion (at least for ourselves) that we have the power to make people change. He was right, and I knew it. As I made my notes in the chart, I recognized that I was afraid of what might happen in my own life, and that I had tried to quell that fear by being the kind of doctor who strides into a room and rescues a patient.

That moment has proven pivotal in my development as a psychologist and a human being. I admit it’s not the only time I’ve made that mistake. But it set me on a path of recognizing that I, like anyone, am prone to overstepping my role as a helper to meet my own needs.

We all do it for a variety of reasons: genuine care; a need to feel powerful; a desire to feel needed; an attempt to heal our own wounds; the feeling of competence it provides; and maybe even a wish to pretend that all of life’s mysteries can be solved with the knowledge we’ve accumulated.

The truth of course, as Greg Boyle reminds us in the opening quote, is that “none of us can save anybody”. He for sure has tried and so have I. With age and experience this fact of our inability to save other people has come as a tremendous relief to me. I can relax and merely be present with people and their suffering. My expectations for myself and others are free to come back down to reality. While my caring and careful listening may lead to a solution, it’s no longer the endgame of my work. The same goes for ordinary me in daily life. I’ve discovered that I can give more of myself to friends and family when I’m holding the light for them rather than trying to create an escape plan.

For those who come to therapy I try to hold up a flashlight and aim it in a direction that might help them in their experience of struggle and lostness. I’m not always successful at this, but I think I’m learning to get better at knowing where to shine these lights. And at the very least I try to extend grace as often as I can.

But of course it’s so much bigger than therapy or professional helpers isn’t it?

We all need each other in our “fumbling for grace and flashlights”. Life is difficult. When the challenges of food, shelter, and safety are resolved, new ones: relationships; health; purpose and meaning; all arise to take their place. We humans are rarely without concern or need of help from each other.

So it seems I have some light today.

But I just might need someone to shine one tomorrow as I fumble in the darkness…


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