The Courage to Witness Pain & Joy
The Gift of a Shattered Snail
The snail’s shell was shattered but the snail was still slipping slowly across the sidewalk. I walked past and when my brain caught up with my eyes a few steps later, I turned back to see what I saw.
I knelt down first to snap a photo, and saw it was indeed still moving. I saw a snail not smushed beyond recognition, but a snail struggling to keep going. Slowly, as snails do, but even slower, head even lower to the ground. Out of respect, I guess, I didn’t snap another image. I sent it loving thoughts, like a prayer and farewell. Then stood and kept walking.
Along the hospice garden trail (my daily route), I didn’t see another snail, as if they were all inside mourning. Beyond in the neighborhood, crossing a street, I saw a smushed crab apple near another stray still-whole apple on the pavement. Snapped pics. Thought of the sentience I assigned to snails and (not?) fruit. How the power of witnessing their brokenness was giving me meaning to ponder.
Along the next sidewalk, I saw another small snail, its shell also damaged, slimy body mostly retracted. Is it gone, I wondered?
Minutes later, smushed plums. Next, a whole swath of blown and smushed little orange berries whose shrub-name I don’t know. The night’s rain and wind and early walker’s shoes causing damage. And yet, it’s the natural effects of Nature’s effects.
Soon after on a Zoom call, my author/doctor/friend Mukta Panda shared her heartbreaking weekend witnessing a fawn on her lawn die of injuries. The fawn had a deformed hind leg. And their weather had also stormed hard. The vultures were literally circling. Mukta was distraught, having spent Saturday and Sunday calling the zoo, veterinarians, the wildlife people—all to be told this deer belongs to “wildlife” governed by rules that don’t permit intervention, at least not without a permit. Only the zoo offered help in the form of cremation, if she brought the body.
What happens to our karma if we don’t intervene, at the very least with a blanket?
What happens to our hearts when we are asked to accept the hard truth that we’re not always able to make things better?
Can we reframe our own Hippocratic-ish oath to do no harm? In our scope of practice as humans, family and friends, perhaps we are meant to be professional witnesses. Witnessing suffering, pain, but also joy.
That day I saw that crushed snail, I was listening to my ancient iPod Shuffle (I usually prefer sounds of nature). The Mystic DJ selected a soundtrack to help me process the scenes of that morning.
OneRepublic offered a lyrical wish to “witness all your joy and all your pain,” hinting I strive to die knowing how fully I lived. I thought of that brave snail, venturing across the wide sidewalk. All summer I’ve seen how some snail trails go clear across, side to side, while others make tiny little loops barely going beyond the memorial bricks that line the hospice sidewalk. I notice how grateful I am to have been studying snails to know this fact.
Then U2 told the story of the Showman who makes a spectacle of falling apart. Maybe that snail’s soul is really a stunt double in a shell, making it look so good. The snail gave me a gift of reflection on its condition. “I’ll go first,” we might say on a day we feel brave or responsible.
I dearly love one of the Courage & Renewal touchstones as ways of being and for making brave spaces. It’s a Quaker practice to create circles of trust where the aim is seeking our own True Self’s guidance in good company, alternately taking the role of witness to listen and offer open questions. The touchstone of “No fixing, no saving, no advising” is based on the premise that everyone has their own inner wisdom and path where struggle is as much a part of the soul’s plan for growth.
The gift of being a witness to someone else’s pain happens when we can see them as a mirror and ponder our own soul’s path to growth. It’s part of the game to honor the mystery of life’s as-yet-unclear meaning.
When I got back to my own patio, I looked for the empty snail shell left after the brief existence of July’s slow visitor. For a minute I wondered if I could bring this spare part back to the snail, if she might vacate her broken one and crawl into this one. No, there’s countless reasons not to do so. It’s just one more reminder that we’re often limited by what we can offer. Except for loving thoughts, always welcome.
A few days later, after another rare rainy night, I took my morning walk, alert for snail trails. I saw a record-setting count of ten living, moving snails! The first was on the gravel path, where I stood for a few minutes like a school-crosswalk guard, until a jogger went past in a wide berth. (Yes, I explained I was standing there protecting a snail from her footsteps).
At the hospice gardens, I saw four more and stood guard as a garden-volunteer walked past, explaining why I was crouched down with my phone-camera and a micro elephant. “Snails eat a lot of greenery” she said, disgruntled.
“Yes, you do such a good job of making sure there is plenty to go around,” I said back.
I saw five more snails (including the smallest I ever spotted), plus a live wriggling worm on my way home. I felt abundant awe.
All those snails and the end of summer remind me that despite loss, there is always a new crop of joy waiting to be discovered.
P.S. I’m so happy to be flying back East this week to witness the joy of my son and his husband tying the knot, officially, after several Covid celebration-delays. I intend to be fully present as witness to LOVE & JOY!
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