At the Ranger Station in Glacier, WA, a slice of Douglas fir sits on a throne.
Near it, an interpretive sign says: Growth rings spaced closely together indicate difficult growing periods, while rings spaced further apart indicate more prosperous seasons of development experienced by the tree.
Oh, how I empathized! I’ve had difficult and prosperous times, too. Recalling them, I cried.
I reached out to the tree, touching its thick-ringed centre. Such a strong heart! I touched its burned part, too, at the narrow-ringed edge. “Lightning strike!” said the tree. “Fear, pain, much confusion, no explanation, and a slow healing process.”
I kissed the narrowly spaced rings, then placed my palm at the fleshy heart. “Your momma loved you,” I whispered, picturing a stand of fir. “You got a good start. You were birthed in blessing.”
How did I know? How could I know if my perceptions were real or true?
At the Intention Gathering, someone asked my husband Charles that same question. Charles loves to tell people how I gather rocks for one kind of Jewish memorial ceremony. After a formal gravestone is “unveiled,” visitors place smaller, personal stones beside it. Each time Charles and I hike in a beautiful place, I stop to pick up pebbles. As I hold each pebble, I ask it, “Would you like to come on an adventure, and help people heal?” If the stone says, “yes,” I put it in my pack. If it says “no,” I thank it and return it to its place.
A friend at the gathering asked: how does she know what the stone answers?
Charles doesn’t really know how I know. But he loves to tell the story. Maybe because I used to teach logic and critical thinking. But more likely because he used to teach empirical psychology.
How do I know? The same way I know in any interpersonal interaction.
In any interaction, we touch and are touched by another — physically, emotionally, energetically. We receive sensations, feelings, images, ideas. We could call them subjective experiences. But it would be more accurate to call them “intersubjective.” They come to us as the content of encounter. They are intersections, the connective tissue of the world.
How do I know? I hang out in the intersection.
I make myself really quiet and just listen. Turn off judgment, so I don’t block important information with my own thoughts and feelings. Sometimes I don’t know whose emotions I’m reading – mine or another’s. But I don’t worry, trusting that answers will come in time.
Active listening, non-anxious presence, intuition, empathy, clinical judgment: the activity has many names. This Rosh Hashanah, I hope to remember it, because fresh-start conversations can be difficult. Memories can be painful, and fear of revisiting them can add to the discomfort. I might worry that I carry too many emotions to speak without crying. Or that another person holds too much feeling to listen without anger.
What if I stopped worrying about who really holds the emotion? What if I simply accepted that the intersubjective intersection might be a bit raw? And then reserved judgment, trusted that answers would come, held myself quiet, and didn’t block the possibilities for healing?
Image: Michael Gabler, “Weathered tree rings” (1978), Wikimedia Commons