When people come and share their suffering with me, so often I hear the words, "I should be able to...". Usually these words arise from a feeling within, a sense that managing thoughts, feelings and life problems is something that I should be able to do without the help of others. Often people balk at the idea of needing to talk to a professional or take a pill to ease the pain.
I remember the first time I had to see a counselor. And I mean had to see one. This was something much more than the casual chats with the college counselor during my undergraduate days. I had just come to Cleveland with the volunteer corps that had so captured my interest. When I had signed up for it, I was excited at the idea of working in a new place, meeting and living with a new group of people. However, when the time actually came, I found myself in a totally different place emotionally.
Some events during the summer between graduation and the move had shaken my very core. I felt uncharacteristically anxious and uneasy. Part of me thought that there must be something wrong with me physically. I knew I had had some emotional disruption - but I had dealt with that. I had thought it all through and it was time to move on. But something inside wasn't moving on. I didn't feel well and any mention of stress or anxiety only seemed to make me feel worse.
I finally went to the doctor and he ran a few blood tests. He told me there was nothing wrong and I obviously had a mental problem. He said that I should see a psychologist. (I was not yet a psychologist myself then.) Of course, I was horrified. I knew he had to be wrong...yet I was so distressed at his suggestion that I could no longer deny that something was going on. I got the name of someone, a self-taught counselor, who was not part of the "system" that I then hated for having judged me.
I was so incredibly fortunate. Even though it was more than 30 years ago, I will never forget what this counselor said to me. He had a casual, easy manner about him. When I was done pouring out my dilemma, he said, "You seem pretty together to me. In fact, maybe a little too together." He proceeded to tell me that it was like I had a report card that had only A's and F's on it, so that if I didn't get an A, it meant I got an F, that I failed. In his wise way, he was telling me I was too much of a perfectionist, that I didn't give myself enough room to make mistakes, to be human. And he did it in a way that my perfectionist self could hear. (We perfectionists like people telling us that we are "too together" much more than we like being told we have mental problems.)
The magic of his words was that they allowed me to relax and accept help without feeling like I had failed as a human being. Up to that point, I had constructed a life in which I was the helper, not the "helpee". As painful as it was, that experience in my life is one that I would never trade. It taught me that I really needed other people in order to make it, that I was vulnerable and could not do it alone. I became open to help and grew tremendously over the years that followed.
Just this past weekend, a friend invited me to hear the Cleveland Symphony Orchestra at Severance. I had not seen them live in many years, probably decades. Listening and watching, I was mesmerized. As they soared through Rachmaninoff's Symphony No.2, I was captivated by the synchrony of the violinists, their bows all moving in unison. The percussionists were often sitting idle - until just the right moment. They then approached their instruments and the music was transformed with the rumbling of the timpani or the bell-like singing of the glockenspiel.
I reflected as I drank in the sights and sounds. I realized that for too much of my life I have been trying to play solos. Even with my earlier experience in accepting the need for help, something in me has still wanted to be able to do it myself. Yet, watching and listening to the orchestra, I was brought to the realization that each musician had to yield his/her solo self for this transcendent symphony of sound to be.
In our culture's teaching that anything less than independent, pull-yourself-up-by-the-bootstrap living is shameful, something so much more valuable is lost. We are not meant to do this alone - any more than the oboes are meant to play the symphony alone. One gives to me, I give to another; the giving and the receiving are woven into interdependent movements that bind us together in ways too deep for words. It is a sacred experience, this orchestra of our hearts.
Do not be afraid. Come, bring your sorrows and your joys - and I will bring mine. Together we shall create a symphony of praise and thanksgiving for this love to which we are called.
(It is interesting to note that Rachmaninoff himself experienced a severe bout of depression after his Symphony No.1 was poorly received. He was unable to write much music for the next three years but finally consulted a psychiatrist whose interventions helped him regain some confidence. He then wrote his Second Piano Concerto in 1901 which was received much more positively. Yet it was still another 5 years before he attempted another symphony, his Symphony No. 2, which he completed in 1907. Thus, because he too accepted help, I was blessed to experience this glorious piece of music in 2012...)