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Tell me your sorrow

My friend Catherine Johns is a powerful speaker and writer. Read her latest piece that I have included here. And talk to her about talking to your group. You will be forever grateful for the lasting impact.


Catherine writes:


Tell me about your sorrow.


Still with me?

What went through your mind when you saw that title, “Tell me about your sorrow”? Did you contemplate skipping this one, moving on to some other, cheerier subject line? “10X your business before summer” or something like that?

Mostly, we shy away from even acknowledging sorrow or suffering. When it’s our own, we might ignore it, eat about it, drink about it, or use drugs to block it out. Or maybe we stay busy, trying to bury it in frenetic activity,

There are a lot of ways to turn away from our own sorrow.

And when it’s somebody else who’s suffering?

We can avoid them—it’s too depressing to be around them and anyway they’ll understand if we just can’t handle it right now.

Or maybe we minimize their feelings. They’ll get over it; after all, God never gives us more than we can handle. And the sooner they start getting over it, the better it’ll be for everyone, including them.

Some of us assert that we know exactly how they feel, and we launch into our own story about our own sad situation, past or present. That keeps us from deeply attending to their feelings.

You might guess, I’ve experienced that range of responses and then some in the past few months. It’s made me spend some time thinking about how I handle somebody else’s sorrow. Am I open to them? Do I really listen?

These questions have been top of mind since I read a Los Angeles rabbi’s essay about an ancient ritual at Jerusalem’s Temple Mount.

Sharon Brous wrote in The New York Times about thousands of Jews entering the temple’s plaza, turning to the right, and circling counterclockwise.   

“Meanwhile, the brokenhearted, the mourners (and here I would also include the lonely and the sick), would make this same ritual walk but they would turn to the left and circle in the opposite direction: every step against the current. And each person who encountered someone in pain would look into that person’s eyes and inquire: ‘What happened to you? Why does your heart ache?’”

The answers, of course, were as varied as the people giving them.

A dead parent or a dying partner. A sick child. Betrayal by a friend or a spouse. These sad people had a chance to name their sorrow, knowing that in that moment, someone was genuinely interested. In their sadness and in them.

Then, Rabbi Brous explained, “Those who walked from the right would offer a blessing: ‘May the Holy One comfort you,’ they would say. ‘You are not alone.’  And then they would continue to walk until the next person approached.”

“This timeless wisdom,” as she says, “speaks to what it means to be human in a world of pain. This year, you walk the path of the anguished. Perhaps next year, it will be me. I hold your broken heart knowing that one day you will hold mine.”

Wow. “I hold your broken heart knowing that one day you will hold mine.”

Some dear friends and family have held my broken heart these past few months. I count them among my enormous blessings.

And I’m committing to do my part.

We can’t take away each other’s pain, of course. We can show up, though. Wholeheartedly. Determined to be present for one another.

Talking about presence is more familiar ground for me. Much more comfortable than focusing on sorrow and suffering and misery. I’ve been speaking and writing for years about executive presence, professional presence, powerful presence. All of them quite important. And all of them involve being present in our body, right here right now.

There’s something bigger though, when we talk about being present to a person in pain. Being with them, for real. Inviting them, “Tell me about your sorrow.” And then listening—really listening—to what they say.

It’s a tall order.

You think we’re up to it?


We are, Catherine, we are.


LISTEN to Catherine's blog here.

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