I Want to Run from Distress
Updated: Feb 1
Marisa Guerin, PhD - January 20, 2020
I’m not especially good at physical balance -- I really have to concentrate to stand still on one foot, for example. But I tend to be better at “inner balance”, at least sometimes. This post is about the conscious effort to be focused and present when my commitment requires it, balanced with taming the strong desire to flee if the emotions of the moment are difficult.
I used to think I could do this reasonably well – but recent experience has enlightened me!
I now realize that if I am practiced and familiar with a role that requires such balance, I am indeed able to do it fairly well. For example, in my consulting engagements, I usually had to balance my impulse to launch into action with the discipline to pay attention to what was happening and how people were feeling. It’s an example of “negative capability,” which I have described in another blogpost. The work of consulting is familiar to me, and it entails a rhythm between attention and intervention.
But in a new role that requires a different type of emotional presence, I need to practice a new kind of balance all over again. This “aha” for me came as I reflected on the very difficult emotions stirred up in my volunteer commitment to accompany immigrants in their court appearances. I had not appreciated what this commitment demands of me, until I noticed myself running away from it.
The experience is helping me to grow spiritually, through discomfort, and it is also teaching me new dimensions of the importance of honoring the primary task and the boundaries of one’s role.
Here’s the context:
Last July, I signed on as a volunteer for the Ministry of Accompaniment in Philadelphia. This program is coordinated by POWER Interfaith in collaboration with the Catholic Coalition for Immigrants and Refugees of the Archdiocese of Philadelphia, and with the New Sanctuary Movement as well as w/ HIAS PA and other immigrant-supportive organizations*.
Volunteers attend court hearings with immigrants who are in the asylum process, or ICE check-ins, or detention bail hearings, etc. We generally do this in groups, maybe 3 or 4 or even more. We’re not legal advisers, not social workers, not translators. Our clear focus is two-fold: to provide the immigrant person with moral support on the day of a court appearance, and to visually demonstrate to the presiding judge or official that these persons are connected to a supportive community in the city. Either as we prepare to go into the courtroom with them, or after leaving, it is the practice to have a brief prayer with them – prayer for their futures, for the judges and lawyers, for their families and all other migrant peoples. Sometimes we search out referral information if they need other kinds of help.
The immigrants I have met are usually young men and women, some of them parents. Most are from Central America; they often come from dreadful home-country situations, and while they have great resilience, they may also suffer poverty and powerlessness. They may not speak English very well, and sometimes not Spanish, either (there are indigenous languages), and they surely don’t understand the complexities of the system that they must navigate. They are very dependent on their community or family network. The asylum process involves multiple court dates, and the final decision about whether they can stay or will be “removed” (that equals “deported”) can take a couple of years. They need lawyers to navigate the process, lawyers who are for the most part overworked and underpaid.
At least on one level, the Accompaniment Ministry is a fairly simple volunteer commitment. It takes a few hours, mostly waiting time, maybe several times a month - a good match for a retiree. It’s amazingly well-organized for having no real budget, and I have met fine people. I thought this would be pretty straightforward, and I was glad to be able to use my Spanish language skills.
But what I have found is that my encounters with vulnerable immigrants generate all kinds of feelings in me. I often don’t get in touch with the range of these feelings right away. It’s when I’m home again, mulling over the reality faced by the person I was with that day, that I become aware of deep sadness, or anger, helplessness, worry, or discouragement.
These are such disturbing feelings that I am not sure I would even have accurately identified them if it weren’t for the fact that I am always (with little success) hoping to lose some weight, so I pay attention to when and why I reach for cookies or chocolate. On the last two accompaniment days, I found myself reaching. I stared at the cookie in my hand, and asked it, “I’m not hungry right now. Why do I need you to comfort me?” I eventually connected the dots. I was carrying home with me the anxious feelings living within the hearts of R., and L., and A., and indeed all of other persons in the overcrowded waiting rooms. I recognized then that I was upset and troubled, and frustrated.
Thinking back over those experiences, I remembered how often my inclination in the accompaniment event itself was to notice ways to improve our own “system” of accompaniment. (And there are always ways to improve -- let’s have referral cards on us so we can tell them about social services if they say they need help; let’s add a communication loop to catch unexpected court date changes, etc. etc. etc. )
Then it dawned on me what I was up to: of course I would notice system gaps -- it’s my default skill set, and it’s not un-welcome or useless. But this preoccupation with how to improve our work process had been unconsciously mobilized in me to serve as my personal, most handy psychological defense against the overwhelming experience of vulnerability in these people and the frustration of not being able to do more. I saw that my way of escaping the distressing feelings was to busy myself with how to tweak the process.
It's true that I feel overwhelmed by their situations: Do they have a safe place to live? Will they, or their spouse or child, be deported? Can they afford legal help? Will it matter? Their realities defy my assumptions about how life is. I’m a person of privilege, education, and seniority. I am used to having agency and rights, some control over what happens to me, the resources to think and act. Even the most oppressed of my fellow American citizens has more power than these people. In silent alliance with the immigrant appearing before the judge, I can lend only the tiniest bit of my power to them by showing up, and the judges may or may not be impressed. And when we part, I go home to unquestioned safety, and he or she goes back to dire insecurity of every kind. For a few hours, I am connected to the immense tragedy of our broken and often cruel immigration system, in which I am complicit just by being an American citizen.
There is a spiritual component to this journey for me, and also a practical wisdom learning.
Spiritually, I am once again invited by life to bear the reactions stirred in me with both a contemplative presence, and a stance of action. I want to be doing all that I am able to do, both accompaniment and other forms of concrete help, and I also try to bear with the brokenness in all of it – with trust that God/the Ultimate Reality, is holding all of this in Love. It is hard to suffer with others, but I believe that when we do so, we are at one with the suffering God who has created us with the freedom to mess up or to heal our world, and who companions us all no matter what.
Honestly, I can’t imagine how one can walk this journey without prayer or reflection, however that happens for you. I know for some people, it's poetry, and for others, music, and for others, meditation. For me, it's often facilitated by honest journal-writing as I open my heart and my life -- especially what I can't control, don't understand, or feel most deeply -- to the Presence that I trust is loving, with hope and with willingness to act as I am able. Without that reflection, I can't know my own motives and I go in circles, seeking integration (or cookies). My journal holds much prayer...
At the practical level, there is a wisdom dimension here. My accompaniment experiences are expanding my understanding of the value of clarity about one’s role, especially in its emotional register. That might sound boringly professional, but it actually has real significance.
In consulting, my role was to help the client by understanding their organizational situation, having ideas to share with them, and finding ways to increase the client’s ability to take action on their problem. That role is analytical and task-oriented. I get that.
But that is not the role of Accompaniment Ministry. As a companion, my role is to be present to the moment, to the person, to the significance of the process they are in. I am there in human relationship. It is not a role that even needs language. It needs the body, mind, and spirit to be present in empathy and in support. It’s not an analytical task. It is an emotional and relational presence, an act of care. I am now much clearer about it than I was at the beginning.
To be fully committed to this kind of role will stretch me a lot. If you know me personally, you know that the strenuous desire of my being will be to solve problems! And when I vote and lobby and go to meetings and march and send emails, I can work on solving problems. But for the specific commitment to this ministry, that will not be mine to do. Instead, I must be present to the other person I am companioning, with all the ambiguity and complexity of that experience.
It is a different focus for me – but not beyond my ability to develop, and certainly not beyond my willingness. I know enough about the containment dynamic to be fairly certain that the more willing I can be to bear the distress of the reality, the more I will be of reliable support to the person I am there to accompany. It won’t be easy. I’ll be practicing on a new balance beam, hopefully getting less wobbly over time.
I’m sharing this story because I think my experience isn’t unusual. Most of us have had the experience of a role change, and sometimes we’ve been surprised by its emotional demands. We have to learn how to change our way of being present, our way of being active, or our way of thinking. We may have to remember not to bring analytical thinking, or evaluation, or decision making to a role that requires listening and support or empathy.
Have you become a grandparent, not a parent of little ones anymore? A mentor to a younger person, not their teacher or supervisor? Are you now the boss, no longer just a colleague? Or back to being a member of your community, not a leader, as formerly? In each role change, we may be inclined to default to the ways of relating that we are used to. But new roles require us to change, too. Our lives aren’t static.
Good luck with the balancing act that life asks of all of us!
* For information about upcoming training sessions for the Philadelphia based "Ministry of Accompaniment" —or to share information about this resource with immigrants seeking accompaniment–please contact Dr. Mary Laver, who serves as the Catholic community organizer with POWER Interfaith, at: firstname.lastname@example.org OR 610-324-9388