Currently, I’m enrolled in a 10-month counseling training program in San Francisco called Interchange. The sessions are comprised of lectures on therapeutic theories and techniques, as well as a lot of practice as both clients and counselors. This update is a recap of the very first weekend which focused on developing presence and empathy.
I look intently into his eyes and sense he’s hiding something. He’s blinking more often than what seems reasonable. I stand more firm in front of him, looking up, trying to calm his nerves by offering a stable presence, even though I feel quite small.
He’s nearly a foot taller than me and probably weighs twice as much as I do, but his eyes don’t convey the confidence his body commands. And so, in spite of my smaller stature, I feel like I must be strong for him.
His hands are sweaty; I know this because we are holding each other’s as if we’re about to exchange vows.
Then, a gentle voice begins narrating our interaction:
“See this person in front of you. Realize that they have seen things that you’ve never seen. They’ve experienced things that you’ve never experienced. They know things that you may never know.”
We both hold eye contact, but shift our stance in awkwardness.
“As you continue looking, you can safely assume that this person has been through a lot just to be here today. Standing before you is someone quite remarkable. And consider, just for a moment, as you continue looking into each other’s eyes, that you might really like this person.”
At this, my partner closes his eyes. When he opens them again, they are filled with tears.
We don’t say anything to each other. In fact, we’ve never exchanged a word before. We simply continue affirming each other’s presence with our attention.
After a few minutes of this – though time didn’t factor into the moment consciously – the gentle voice guides us to give a nod of affirmation to our partner. Instead, this big childlike man gives me a bear hug and I squeeze him back with all my might.
Still, we never say a word. He walks away, a very likable stranger, as I begin looking for a new partner.
Over 150 people and I begin to mill around in a large swarm, silently making eye contact and offering as much love as we can through wordless acknowledgments.
The gentle voice encourages us to pause and take the hands of whomever we find ourselves facing.
“Now,” the voice says, “we are going to practice falling in love with this person.”
I take his hands and consider the implications of me, a heterosexual man, hypothetically falling in love with a man. The absurdity of the moment is laughable, so I chuckle, but agree to play along. After all, I did come here to grow in love and empathy – not just with those who are like me, but also with those who I don’t commonly relate with.
This all took place last weekend at the first of a monthly gathering of nearly 200 people who are eager to improve their counseling and interpersonal skills through Interchange’s practice-centered curriculum.
For the better part of this next year, I will be among these counselors-in-training. What this means is that, as much as I will counsel, I will also be a client. I will be speaking intimately with people from a wide range of religious, socio-economic, sexual, and cultural identities. This also means that I will not be able to escape any dormant prejudice I hold in my heart because “those people” are now becoming my clients and friends. It also means that I am no longer one of “those people” to them because they have become my counselors and confidantes.
This first whirlwind weekend training has made me aware of just how different we all are from each other. But it has also shown me that love is disarming and sees beyond differences.
Truth is, I may want people to change their behaviors and opinions and actions – inevitably, others will want me to change, too – but, without love, I’m just a shallow critic scratching at the surface of their personhood. Love is better than that. And I want to be more loving, so I’ve got to be better than that.
This is going to be uncomfortable.
Peace and good,
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