Thich Nhat Hanh, global spiritual leader, poet and peace activist, is 88 years old this month. I was honored to spend a week with him and his monastics last year at a monastery in Mississippi. Thay ("teacher"), as he is lovingly called, emanates tenderness. He exudes a deep peace and receptivity. Most memorably for anyone who has been near him, he is abundantly and intensely present.
Thay's teachings are simple. He notes that the most powerful gift we can give to another person is our presence. To deepen and heal our relationships he guides us to say (to ourselves) as we sit with our loved ones, "Darling, I am here for you. Darling, I know you suffer, and I am here for you."
In our Children's Advocacy Center, forensic interviewers and therapists demonstrate this deep presence with the children we serve. Each day, interviewers sit with young clients, most of whom are 9-10 year-old girls disclosing sexual abuse at the hands of someone they know and trust. Interviewers work to lift the burden of shame and secrecy from these children, obtaining vital information that is used in criminal investigations, all the while doing so in a non-leading, calm manner. This occurs while law enforcement professionals and others observe from a separate room, so as not to overwhelm children in their often-fragile states.
How we respond to an accidental or partial disclosure of abuse is critical. In addition to sexual abuse, children may disclose extensive physical abuse or traumatic neglect, or they may tell gruesome details of a homicide that happened before their young eyes. The stories are often steely, capable of shaking interviewers to their cores. Sometimes children and youth tell a little bit about their trauma and watch with acuity for any hint of disgust, judgment or distress before moving on to the deeper depravity they have experienced. Interviewers are trained not to react with surprise or shock, understanding that these children must feel free to tell their stories. Interviewers know that everything they do or say must be defendable in court.
Therapists listen and observe; they are fully present as children transform from victims to survivors. They gently guide and support traumatized children through a process to re-frame their experiences, to help them understand that the events they have experienced are not "who they are," that what has happened is a chapter in their book of life, but not the whole story.
But what about those of us who aren't trained as interviewers or therapists? For those who are teachers and parents? What happens if a child discloses abuse to us? How would we respond, and what would we do next? We all need to take a lesson here. Education specialists in our agency routinely teach parents and those who work with children about how to remain very calm if a child tiptoes into disclosing abuse and about what actions to take following a disclosure. We talk about the honor of that trust, and the gift of presence we can bring in response. "Thank you so much for telling me," we advise adults to say, "Tell me as much as you like." No judgment. No horror. Only presence. "I am here for you."
We also encourage parents who have a history of unresolved childhood trauma to seek care, to heal their own wounded parts as the greatest gift they can give their own children. For how can we be fully present for our children if we are consumed by our past? Thich Nhat Hanh suggests that we learn to hold our own suffering as we would a crying child: compassionately, lovingly, with a soothing gentleness. He urges us not to deny our suffering, but to hold it tenderly, looking deeply into it, consoling it. By doing so, he says, we can find our way to happiness.
There is nothing easy about this work, nothing easy about healing our own wounds or about gently supporting children as they grieve their sorrows. But we must. Failure to heal culminates in a host of adverse outcomes, including teen pregnancy, drug and alcohol abuse, and health risks related to elevated cholesterol, cardiovascular disease, and metabolic syndrome.
Pinch and Haddas say that the gift of presence is making ourselves vulnerable to share the human condition, to quietly acknowledge the suffering of others as a way to bring healing to our world:
Suffering has a cry and that cry is: be. Be with me.
Be, not do. Be, even in silence. Just be.