It is striking how our human undoing can occur so quickly. While healing seems to happen only with herculean effort over months or years, trauma and re-injury can happen in an instant and unravel us just as quickly.
Is it possible that healing can also occur just as easily as trauma?
Can healing happen in a single interaction -- in a moment?
I offer this personal story as an example of a brief extraordinary-ordinary conversation I had with a stranger thirty years ago that I found, and still find, healing.*
On Christmas Day, 1994, I was folding up chairs -- now pushed back slightly from their original places tucked under the tables of a homeless shelter in Christchurch, New Zealand. Squeak- fold -stack, and onto the next one, squeak - fold - stack. Still wearing the required paper hat to serve food, I was now part of the clean-up crew for the guests we served under a large canvas tent providing shade for the long tables covered with paper table cloths. We had just shared hot soup, warm bread, sparkling December sunshine, and quiet conversation on slightly dented folding chairs. Spending Christmas Day helping out felt like a small gesture of gratitude toward a country I had spent the last month exploring – determined to go home with more resolve to finish college and leave the Midwest. I was mid-fold of the next chair, and one of the guests, an older man, came over to me.
“I have been noticing how you work,” he paused. I raised my eyebrows to look at him unsure of what he was going to say next. His face was kind and earnest, and slightly sagging on one side. I rested the chair in front of me before stacking it and we chatted for a few minutes.
We exchanged names and life circumstances. Mr. Riley had recently lost two relatives to cancer. His mother had died when he was four years old and he also lost his son several years ago. After suffering a stroke, he was laid off and was now staying at the homeless shelter until he could get back on his feet again.
I was in between college semesters and in between colleges, currently sleeping on the floor of a youth hostel nearby. Overall, I was having the adventure of a lifetime even though I had recently gone through some heartbreak of my own and had no idea what to do if and when I finished college.
Although I felt like I should have been offering him support, not the other way around, his kindness was reassuring, "Keep on with your work and your studies and you will do well in your life,” Mr. Riley continued. I believed him. He encouraged me to choose something specific to study and study it deeply. He said because his work life was over, it was his turn to encourage others despite his own challenges. We talked a bit more about art, people, fear, and faith.
“Let her out,” he added, pointing to my heart. “She is beautiful and valuable.” This I didn’t believe yet, but I appreciated his sincerity.
Someone interrupted us passing a hat for donations. Assuming he had nothing to give, I was surprised to see him pull out a $10 note and place it into the hat without hesitation.
We wished each other well on our journeys from here. "I will not forget this," I told him. He smiled and bowed his head.
I left New Zealand shortly after this day fairly certain I had an encounter with an angel. When someone meets us where we are and says exactly what we need to hear, they are angels to us in that moment. Mr. Riley did this all while embodying a generous spirit.
This brief encounter stayed with me for three decades now. I draw on this memory of heartfelt attention from time to time. It helps to have a small stack of inspiring and healing moments to rely on when I don’t feel seen or heard or feel very connected. It reminds me that any moment can be an intervention, a healing of sorts if I place my attention there.
After loss, pain, or injury, homeostasis says seek to return to an old you, but allostasis says keep changing and growing. Keep letting go and giving. To do so, it is important to attune to the moments of healing. Healing-informed care for ourselves means being able to notice and remember the moments when we are OK, when we are seen by others, when we recognize our inherent belonging on this planet, or experience a snippet of goodness in a single interaction. Allostatic growth occurs in a single moment of healing.
“All real living is meeting,” Jewish philosopher Martin Buber writes. “When we encounter another individual truly as a person, not as an object for use, we become fully human.” Seeing each other this way is requisite for evolving toward justice and peace. Meeting in this way is our way forward.
We cannot wait to begin healing until there is no more trauma, violence or harm. We cannot wait for a time of complete safety with no more triggers or potential for re-injury. Each moment we may wince in pain where someone has once again belittled, dismissed, or hurt us, we can learn to hold ourselves better and recover – to some degree – by noticing or remembering a healing moment.
Steve Riley, wherever you are now: You were an angel to me that day.
My other angels: Carlos, Willow, Lisa L., Mel, Bev, Colleen, Michelle, Kyle, Lisa M., Robin, Robyn, Jackie, Cam, Steve, Betsy, Melia, Adam, David, Bobbi, Patsy, Doug, Rick, Ken, Wendy, Latifat, John, Mark, Cheryl, Mary, Bridget, Diana, Tim, and many others who in a moment, knew exactly what I needed to hear and said it.
*Excerpt from my forthcoming memoir, The Singing Bridge.
First image: Lake Tekapo, NZ, by rana88888/Pixabay.
Second image: Photo I took Christmas Day, 1994, Christchurch, NZ.