I have the good fortune to be in the middle of seven straight days of classes. We having been learning about and discussing some pretty hard and heavy things — childhood cancers, extended hospital stays, the dying process. All of us are here because for our own reasons, we are drawn to this kind of work.
I am noticing again, though, a story we tell ourselves that I find unsettling. It is the story of the Sainted Massage Therapist. The one professional who floats in on waves of compassion and caring and leaves behind a moment of comfort and peace in an otherwise cruel world. We say things like, “I could provide that moment of comfort . . .” or “I gave her that connection . . .” or “This is beautiful work.”
Here’s the thing — we are not necessarily wrong to say these things. Those tiny moments of comfort in the midst of suffering make the work worth doing. And it is beautiful. Sometimes unbearably so, because it puts our hearts on such clear display.
Where I get unsettled, though, is when we start to believe our own mythology. We can start to tell these stories a way to keep ourselves ultimately separate from our clients. It turns into a protective barrier, emphasis on barrier. When we make ourselves into Saints or Superheroes, we isolate ourselves. (Wonder Woman, Spiderman, Batman — their lives were all solitary.) We need to find a way to stay in the human realm.
One of my favorite massage moments illustrates this perfectly:
I was doing my clinic rounds for a Geriatric Massage class. We were working on the dementia floor of a Skilled Nursing facility. My client was confined to her bed, and clearly had been for a long while. She had limited verbal communication, and was about 80 pounds. I brought a chair over to her and held her hand. She turned her face towards me and started humming — no specific tune, just a gentle humming of different notes. It felt like I should join in, so I started humming along. Somehow we matched each other’s pitch and tone and made a little music together while we held hands. The class instructor stopped in the doorway to watch and called some of the staff over to see this beautiful, transcendent moment.
After about 5 minutes, the woman stopped humming and turned even more towards me. She reached her other arm over and held my hand in both of hers. I could see she had something to say so I leaned in close to her. She took a deep breath and said, “It’s poop.”
And I took a breath in and knew that it was.
I plan to remember these messy human moments, right next to the transcendent ones.