Sometimes life demands that we bleed. It isn’t enough to feel our painful stories echoing around in our heads; and even the familiar spasm in our backs behind our hearts is not sufficient to release the historic injuries of our childhood, so deeply ingrained that they become us. Sometimes accidents with a knife in the kitchen or slicing one’s foot open on blunt object as I did this week, move pain out of the head and squarely into the body. Five stitches later in my foot and the red swelling of the tetanus reaction are the physical proof of the pain that could no longer be satisfied with words. I had to bleed and limp and be fully immersed in my pain. This is the rationale I have heard about people who cut themselves. Bleeding is a relief; everyone can feel the searing of flesh exposed.
Ostensibly, I came back to Florida to create some safety nets of care for my father who cannot witness his own weakness. As I worked to find people who could help with daily chores, change his bathtub to a shower pan, and cook up a months’ worth of meals, his resistance only increased. Every effort I made to help him only made the idea of losing his independence more real and turned his difficult nature obstinate, his disrespect louder and meaner. He has never allowed himself to need anyone nor expressed gratitude.
Culturally, our personal concept of independence is so highly valued that it defines our political differences in many ways. I remember how this question became a social lightening rod in the last presidential campaign when Obama commented on how any individual success is a really a result of collective effort. Understanding the balance between what we accomplish independently and the result of all of us working together is nothing less than the work of grace in our lives. To recognize how our own work is made possible by the efforts of multitudes of people, some we may not even know, through infrastructure that we take for granted, opens up gratitude and sense of belonging in family and society that our confused sense of independence obliterates. Our beliefs about how much help others deserve, and how much we are responsible to each other, defines our intimate relationships in the deepest of ways as well.
My father’s refusal of help throughout his life was matched by his refusal to help. As the years have worn on have become the confines of his existence, this became the burden that separated him from everyone who once loved him. Our real strength and satisfaction of achievements begin in our hearts’ ability to be grateful for the multitude of ways that we are helped every step of the way. Rarely do we stop to appreciate how easy it is to take for granted the clean running water, lights that reliably turn on, food banks in every community, or medical care regardless of your insurance benefits. There are literally millions of invisible hands that make everything we attempt possible.
And when it comes to loving people and feeling loved, this is the first truth. We don’t really accomplish anything on our own when someone loves us. Independence is more useful when you think of it as the courage it takes to bring our whole selves: our tarnished, broken and imperfect selves to the table where we are accepted so that eventually we come to accept our selves. It is not needing that makes us weak, rather it is shame that cuts us off from our own hearts, making it impossible to receive the help that is always being offered.
I am limping home, happy that I have bled out this shame that has so long separated me from the parts of my father that live in me. Gratitude replaces shame; it lets us receive what we already have.