I was reminded of this letter today as I was responding to an email from a wonderful new friend. I decided to share it with her and ended up rereading it myself. I cannot remember when I wrote this letter, but it must have been at least ten years ago. Reading it today brought me back to all those incredible people who have so deeply moved me and shaped the person that I am today. Although it is longer than my normal blogs, I wish to share it with you. Because in many ways there is a part of each of us in each of us. We are all one.
The vastness of it all, the billions of people, the myriad of stories, the pain, suffering, wars, crime, family breakdowns, disease, poverty, natural disasters, the list goes on and on. Is it any wonder that we feel disconnected, afraid and overwhelmed much of the time? There is struggle and death all around us.
Ever since I was a young girl, I was aware of how overwhelming and isolating living in our world can be. At sixteen years of age, after transcending my own existential crisis, I vowed to use my life to help alleviate the suffering I felt within me and all around me. Wanting to learn as much as I could about the human condition, I chose to go into social work. My education and subsequent internships provided me with a deeper understanding of human nature, and many of its manifestations. But there was no greater teacher than you.
Everything came together when I started working at the VNS psychiatric mobile crisis team. Our mission was to reach out to help individuals and families experiencing severe emotional and psychological distress. We covered the whole borough of Queens, working with people from all socio, economic and ethnic backgrounds. Since our services were funded by the Department of Mental Health, we had the luxury of providing our services for free.
The level of suffering I encountered remains unspeakable; from the pregnant young woman whose husband shot himself in front of her; to the elderly woman living in squalor, unable to pay for her medicines; to the parents trying desperately to help their schizophrenic child; to the children of the drug addicted mom prostituting herself to get her next high; to the AIDS or cancer patient in hospice; to the parents whose child died when a tree fell on his school bus; to the children who are trying to keep their Alzheimer’s father safe; to the families of the victims on Flight TWA800; to counseling the traumatized victims of the World Trade Center bombing– I felt it all.
Life is never as acute as when one is in the midst of death. There is no posturing or pretending, there is just the undeniable rawness of the moment. People are not concerned with looking good, being right, or any of the other superficial desires that pervade our ordinary life. There is only one need – to live in love, without suffering. Living in this heightened sense of what is genuinely real and important – with all its agony and tragedy – creates an environment of authentic relatedness between people.
It was in this context that I had the privilege to serve you, thereby experiencing some of the tenderest, most open and loving moments in my life. Everyday, I experienced the power of intimacy that exists between human beings when we are stripped down to our emotional nakedness. You let me into your inner most thoughts and feelings, putting your lives in my hands, revealing all that is in you. In the face of unimaginable challenges, you exhibited an indefatigable spirit, beckoning me to rise with you above the fray. People often asked me how do you this everyday? Doesn’t it drain you? Don’t you get burnt? The contrary was true; working with you fueled, enriched and empowered me. You were a constant reminder of the beauty and strength existing in each and every one of us. With awe and humility, I never underestimated your power for self healing.
What became apparent to me over time is the essential essence of human nature and its rich mosaic. Queens, being one of the most ethnically diverse county’s in United States, afforded me the opportunity to experience individuals from all over the world. Almost every neighborhood is a country in its own right; the Indians in Jackson Heights; the Koreans, Chinese, and Vietnamese in Northern Flushing; the Caribbean Islands communities in Jamaica; the secular Jews in Forest Hills and the orthodox in Southern Flushing; the Greeks in Astoria; the Italians in Corona and Bayside – and dozens of other nationalities scattered around the whole borough.
When entering your home, its furnishing and scent would instantly reflect your particular culture. Whether wearing a sarong or a yarmulke, the strong identity with your nationality and religion was always the first thing I was struck by. However, within minutes into our talk, all these nuances disappeared, revealing another layer of humanity – our universal needs. It did not matter what you looked like what religion you practiced, what language you spoke, or what food you ate, as soon as you opened yourself and shared your dreams, your fears, your laughter, your tears, our common humanity shined through- we all want the same things –to be healthy, to be financially secure, to be heard, to be loved, to belong, to grow and to contribute.
On the other hand, I also witnessed the extraordinary darkness that lives around our hearts. I saw the acts of violence, heard the tortured thoughts, observed the compulsive behaviors, the anxieties, the addictions, the helplessness, the depression, the delusions – the seemingly bottomless gloom. These shadows, so pervasive in our world, exist to some extent in each and every one of us. Yet every person walks about suppressing them, thinking no one else has these thoughts or impulses, “there must be something uniquely wrong with me.”
My work was, and still is, to expose this fallacy. The human condition is challenging enough without our need to deny and thereby, be rendered unable to harness our dark side. It is time for us to embrace all of our attributes, from the darkest to the brightest- we are all of that! The darkness is there for a reason, it serves a purpose. Once we understand its purpose, we can release it. However, as long as we deny its existence, we cannot understand nor be free of it. It will continue to run our lives, creating further unnecessary suffering and destruction to us and people around us.
Since Mobile Crisis, I have had the fortune and privilege to bring this awareness to countless of people, clients, family, friends and others, generally resulting in their ability to identify and work through their dark side in an open and nonjudgmental manner. Without fear from ridicule and criticism, we humans have an extraordinary capacity to accept and transcend our shadows. And when we do, we become more sensitive, more compassionate, more generous and more loving. With these attributes, we build each other up rather than break each other down. Life is difficult enough – can we please be honest and kind with ourselves and each other.
In conclusion, I would like to thank you, my brothers and sisters, for your contribution to my education, development and growth. It is because you were willing to expose all of you to me, that I have had the grace to better understand myself and humanity, thus, bring my lessons to others. Thank you for your contribution to my life, and hopefully to many more lives.
With humility and gratitude,