“I will weep”: Leaders as pain-bearers

Apparently babies cry a lot. You’d think I would know this by now, having had three. But there is a biological switch that flicks off between one baby and the next: the same switch that helps women forget the pain of labour. You forget just how much a newborn baby cries. Babies cry for all sorts of reasons.

But mostly, they cry for no reason at all.

This is the toughest crying to deal with. Nothing can make it better. And in these moments the reality of parenting a newborn; the exhaustion and the pain and the frustration; seem so far removed from the fantasy world of happy families. Every scream says to new parents “You can’t help me! You’re not good enough!” Every intake of infant breath brings new hope that the sobbing might subside, and then a fresh bawl that splits the ears and crushes the spirit just a little more.

Emily is 10 weeks old. She’s a crier. She starts at about 6pm, and will keep it up all evening. She cries so hard that she won’t take her bottle. The only thing that soothes her is movement. And so we switch from bouncy chair, to swaying, to walking around, and then back to bouncy chair. Each transition triggered after a few moments of calm, as her face crumples again and her little body becomes racked once more with sobs.

And we ride the storm.

The other night it got a bit much. Nothing I could do for her was right. Everything I tried brought a fresh round of tears. Holding her hot, sobbing body – staying on the move to try and calm her – was just exhausting. I had to put her down and walk away. Gut wrenching.

A little later, as I held her again, I came across this article. It says:

However, there’s another major purpose crying serves. Babies also cry to heal and recover from stressful experiences. When babies come into the world they have often had a difficult journey. Even the gentlest of births leaves a baby with feelings to process as they get used to being in a new and stimulating world.

Crying, often every evening (for what appears to be no reason), is natural for babies, and providing we have triple-checked that all their needs are met, we don’t need to do anything to stop them. We can simply listen, pay warm attention, and allow them to release their feelings.

When a baby is supported to cry in a parent’s loving arms, they will release feelings of stress, then naturally sleep well.

And it got me thinking:

When babies are at their hardest to love – that’s when they need love most of all.
When babies seem to struggle and resist any form of affection – that’s when they need the security of being held.
When babies are inconsolable – that’s when they need the consolation they refuse so determinedly.

Are any of us any different?

We might learn to express some of our basic needs – hunger, or clothing, or security. But do we really? Which of our unreasonable or irrational behaviours are actually a cry for help? What do we still have to learn about expressing our need for affection, or security, or love, or healing? What trauma have we experienced, that we are yet to process?

These seem like really important questions for those of us who are in leadership and ministry roles. A few weeks ago I facilitated a session for colleagues in Chester Diocese on Resilience. As part of that morning, I said this:

A focus on our self is about developing a healthy foundation from which to listen and respond to others. If we can deal with and transform our own pain, we are better able to meet others in theirs, even when their expression of that pain is a threat to us, or is hurtful.

Managing ourselves gives us a better perspective when it comes to dealing with others. It allows us to stand back from the hurtful comment, the unfair criticism, the attempt at conflict, and to ask “What is behind these words? What is going on for this person, at this time, that is causing them to lash out in such a way?”

And I quoted Richard Rohr:

If we do not transform our pain, we will most assuredly transmit it. If we cannot find a way to make our wounds into sacred wounds, we invariably give up on life and humanity.

And Notker Wolf:

We must be aware that we are never dealing with angels of light. People are more or less strong or weak, and we are all subject to envy, dislike, wilfulness and even deceit. This awareness preserves us from disappointment. It makes us compassionate and also alert to the uniqueness of people and situations. We must meet the challenge of taking human shortcomings into account without also passing judgement on them.

I wonder whether an effective model for leadership might be that of the pain-bearer?

The pain-bearer is the one who hears the cries of the world around them.
The one who holds those cries, as a parent holds their sobbing newborn, until they subside.
The one who is simply present: calm, reassuring and comforting.
The one who doesn’t turn their back and walk away from the pain, but who sits through it and suffers alongside.
The one who knows that they themselves are hard to love.
The one who listens, who pays warm attention, who is unafraid of feelings.

Pain-bearers are self-aware, secure, and committed to confronting and working through their own pain. They recognise their own inability to express their basic needs, and are ready to work through that inability. Pain-bearers are able to face the pain of another – their anger, frustration and fears – and sit with that pain. They hear past the cries of “You can’t help me!”, “You’re not good enough!” and they stay anyway.

I am lucky to know one or two pain-bearers. They are shy people, but they are leaders nevertheless. Theirs is a leadership that is wholly and completely for the other, so that those whose pain they bear may flourish and shine.

There’s a lot of pain around at the moment. Perhaps we need just a few more pain-bearers to help us navigate these times?

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5 thoughts on ““I will weep”: Leaders as pain-bearers

  1. Fascinating post Jenny. Your resilience will lead Emily to feeling better I’m sure. There’s a lot of mileage in that metaphor of “pain bearer”. Our eldest son used to cry every evening. That was colic. I wish I had been self aware enough to recognise my role as pain bearer.

  2. I love what you have written Jenny. It puts me in mind of Broken which I know you enjoyed too. His pain bearing was gentle and affectionate and facilitated by his own pained interior. It seemed that it was through his bearing pain for others that he was reconciled to his own.

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