My colleague, Edith Braeger, and I were recently co-facilitating a Living Compass Parent Wellness group at nearby church. Our group of eleven met for six weeks and as always happens in a Living Compass group, there was a great deal of honest and heartfelt sharing about the full range of joys and concerns that life and parenting brings.
As Edith and I were there as the facilitators of the group, we started each session with a short lesson related to parenting wellness. and opened things up for a group discussion. With this group, as with every Living Compass group, we found ourselves over time speaking less and the group members talking more. Each week, as trust began to build in the group, the parents turned more and more to each other for help. One mother risked sharing with the group that she yells at her kids way too much. She ventured to ask the group if others also had struggled with that. Another parent immediately responded, “All I know is that when I lose it with my kids, that’s more about me than about my kids. It means I’m stressed out and not doing well myself.” Apparently that honest reply was just what this mother needed to hear as she immediately stopped talking about how poorly behaved kids were and, shifting focus, spent the next few minutes talking about how stressed she was at work because she hated her boss and yet she couldn’t afford to quit her job. The group listened with compassion and then offered some advice on how to mange her boss. She was greatly relieved and thanked the group for their support.
Living Compass groups are not therapy groups. They are made up of people just like you and me who get stressed and out of balance sometimes. While all the groups have trained facilitators, most of the best advice in these groups comes from the wisdom of the other participants.. It always seems that some other person has just the right piece of wisdom, based on their own life experience, that is just what the other person needs to hear at that moment There is a collective wisdom in the group that each person takes turns benefitting from.
I was thinking about all of this when I learned that Pauline Phillips, better known by her pen name Abigail Van Buren, died this week at the age of ninety-four. Her column, Dear Abby, with a regualr readership of over 110 million begun in 1956 and ran for over 40 years. She regularly dispensed advice about parenting, marriage, difficult relatives, and the problems of everyday life. Like the parents in the Living Compass group that I mentioned above that were providing compassionate, helpful support to one another, Abigail Van Buren had no professional training. What she had was a warm, caring heart, and a collection of wisdom that simply came from life experience.
The term “professional help” is often used when a person is struggling with a life issue, as in “maybe it’s time to seek professional help.” As a licensed therapist who has been honored to offer such help to people for over thirty years, I of course, am a strong proponent of seeking professional help when needed and believe that there should be no shame or stigma in seeking such help. Yet, in the spirit of what I see in Living Compass groups, and in the help provided through the Dear Abby column, I am reminded that most of the help that we provide to one another is of the “unprofessional” kind. This is the sharing of the kind of empathy, wisdom and life lessons that friends, neighbors, family members, colleagues, 12-step groups, etc. offer to each other every day.
The world has changed a great deal since Abigail Van Buren started writing her Dear Abby column in 1956. Our world has become more technical, more professional, and more complex. In honor of Abigail Van Buren’s passing away, it’s good for all of us to pause and remember though, that wise words spoken with compassion and humor never go out of style. In honor of “Dear Abby” we can all strive to be better listeners to others concerns and, if asked, share empathic advise based on our own life lessons and wisdom.
I close with some compassionate and humorous words, taken from a Swedish toast, that Van Buren said were important for guiding her life. May these words be her parting wisdom to us all.
“Fear less; hope more. Eat less; chew more.
Talk less; say more. Hate less; love more.”