Finding the confidence to listen

Tonight is our blogapalooz-hour at ChicagoNow. We’re writing about confidence, having it and lacking it.

I’ve been told, more times than I can count, that I’m “intense.” I’m pretty sure that folks don’t all define the term the same way, but I take the point.

And, while I am passionate and serious and do have strong opinions and whatever else “intense” means, it’s not the only thing that’s true about me. It’s just a part of who I present to the world.

I often lead with intensity because its protective. You need a little space between yourself and an intense campfire or you’ll get burned. My passion and enthusiasm tend to suggest that I’m stronger and more confident than I really am. They help me feel stronger and more confident than I really am.

Confidence doesn’t always present itself as intensity, which probably isn’t news to you. But it has been a sort of revelation to me lately. Confidence is also quiet and gentle. It is sometimes reassuring instead of intimidating.

Cancer is intense. It’s a bonfire of physical and emotional experiences. And that intensity is hard for some folks to deal with. It’s hard to say out loud, especially for the first time, “I’m afraid to die.” It’s also hard to hear someone else say those words.

There are so many things about cancer that are hard to express, in large part because it’s hard to find an audience who will listen. People are afraid and uncomfortable. They want to believe you are not in pain and are at peace, positive, coping well. How do you tell them that you’re angry and afraid and in great pain? It’s so overwhelming.

Last week a former colleague came to my office door. She retired last year and I haven’t seen her since. As I looked up and saw her, my cancer antenna went up.

I am not a very “huggy” sort of person. I rarely initiate a hug, especially at work or with someone I don’t know very well. But when I saw her I immediately called her name and gave her a big hug. I think it surprised both of us.

I saw her short hair, and I realized it was too short to be a new hairstyle. It was post-chemo hair. And, my instinct was gentleness. I moved toward her instead of keeping my distance.

Living in the cancer community has taught me about this sort of confidence. It’s harder than it looks to be a witness to someone else’s suffering. My own intense nature has been a huge asset to me in this community, because I can handle intensity. I recognize it and know what’s underneath it. I can respond to it.

I’ve written before about the writing group that I facilitate at Gilda’s Club. My main role in this group is to be a listener, an audience and witness to these writers’ words. People need to be heard. Being heard provides some relief and comfort.

I guess I always thought that confidence was found in boldness, in the ability to speak up and speak out. But I realize now that it’s also found in silence and eye contact. It’s found in the quietness required to hear about another person’s pain.

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Filed under: Cancer, Uncategorized

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