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Let it soften you

senior column

After a particularly difficult summer abroad through DukeEngage, I arrived at CAPS with more anxiety than I knew what to do with. My therapist’s office was sunny and warm, with one of those deep, stylish couches, probably made for very tall men. Someone my height either has to lay way back or put their feet up to reach the cushion in the back.

My therapist was kind and generous, but I remember very little about those six sessions. I spent the whole time perched on the edge of that uncomfortable couch, and my back always hurt so badly by the end of our hour together that I would have to go lay down. 

I never told her about my pain.

I started seeing that same therapist again last summer, this time in her private practice. I liked her new couch much better, and I always adjusted the pillows when I came in, sank back into the couch and pulled my legs up to my chest: my favorite way to sit. There, I told her how I felt like I was at the bottom of a deep well that I felt like I could never climb out of, how I could not yet envision a world where I could be in pain everyday and be happy. 

As we’ve reached our final sessions together–now virtually–we’ve reminisced about those painful afternoons at CAPS. Why didn’t I adjust the pillows or ask to switch seats? How was I talking about my anxiety and not talking about my body hurting all the time?

Why did it take me years to tell anyone at Duke about my pain?

My site coordinator from DukeEngage, whom I am lucky to call my friend to this day, often said that she tried to let the experience of those summers soften her. I met her in a moment when I was so full of new information, so unsure of the truths I’d held close for 19 years, and so darn homesick that I had numbed myself to the pain of the world. And to my own pain.

She held a wisdom that I couldn’t understand yet: that when you put up defenses against the discomfort of a broken world, you also cheat yourself out of the opportunity to see its beauty. 

Kerry Egan, a hospice chaplain and writer from my hometown, says this about her work: “In most of life, you can be weak inside and get through by putting on a tough outer shell. But if you work in hospice, you have to stay soft on the outside. So in order to stand up straight, you have to have a spine of steel.”

Duke is not a gentle place. It will not teach you how to be open or porous or soft; it will teach you the opposite. It will look at a global crisis and say: keep learning! It will not make space for your grief of trauma or pain. It will convince you that it is normal to feel exhausted, hopeless and alone. It will hand you all the tools you need to construct a hard outer shell.

Listen: I wore a literal tough outer shell everyday for many years. I do not recommend it.

The work I’ve done for the past four years has been the work of softening. 

Softening means noticing those days–those years, even–when I survived by hiding my vulnerability, weakness, and pain under a veil of a lot of smiling, making (extremely funny) self-deprecating jokes and crying quietly in bathrooms. Softening means noticing those defenses and not judging myself for them. They were the tools I had, and I was doing the best that I could. 

Softening means giving myself permission, over and over again, to chip away at that hard outer shell, little by little: to feel my feelings, to say the scariest things out loud, to need people, to trust that people will still love me even when they know how badly I hurt.

Softening means sitting down, nineteen times, in a comfortable chair, and putting a piece of my soul in writing for all of you to see. It means trusting that, if I told the truth about some of the hardest things in my life, I would find friendship, hope, power and courage. I did. I am so grateful.

Softening would have been nearly impossible if I hadn’t fallen into community with the most generous, most extraordinary people. I could let myself be soft l because I knew there was a place for me in the Duke Chapel basement on the comfiest couch in the world, in a circle of chairs in Goodson Chapel, in cars heading somewhere new, in the arms of people who knew me before they knew my pain but who loved me even after they met my pain. Their voices come to me, even now, in my deepest fear and deepest hurt, saying, you don’t have to apologize. You don’t have to explain. I’m here. I’m with you. I’m not going anywhere. 

I will never have the words to thank those people, but I will try anyway: Thank you. I love you. You are my home. I never want to live in a world where I don’t hear your voice.

I could have carried on being hardened and defensive even if with these beautiful people in my life, though. I know that because I spent two years surrounded by these beautiful people and still sitting in uncomfortable chairs, pretending I was not in pain.

I have never felt strong. After all, it is my weakened, atrophied back muscles that keep me cursing bar stools and benches for their inadequate back support. But it’s like Kerry Egan said of the soft people: “In order to stand up straight, you have to have a spine of steel.”

It’s actually titanium, but it certainly gets the job done.

What truly gave me the freedom to grow soft was knowing that I was strong enough to do it. 

Softening most of all means learning to trust that I had everything I needed to survive within me already, that I am far stronger than I believe I am. I am well-practiced, actually, at withstanding discomfort, and I had to trust myself enough to learn that I could feel all of the hard things and still feel all the joy and peace and pleasure and excitement and satisfaction of a good life.

Duke is not a gentle place. It will not teach you how to be soft. But if I have any advice to the people I have left behind, the people I am leaving with, it’s this: try to let it soften you anyway. 

Feel the rain drench you when you’re caught out on Science Drive without an umbrella. Feel the heat beaming up from the pavement on those sunny days in August, in May. Feel the breeze ruffling all the trees in the gardens in the spring, the forest in the fall. Feel the chill running up your spine when you hear the Chapel bells ringing. Feel the rage in your core when you see injustice. Feel the tenderness in your heart when you see pain. Feel the sweaty joy in your body when you dance with your friends. Feel the deep peace in your soul when you look around and see home looking back at you. 

Pull up a chair that feels good, and lean back into it. Wear comfortable shoes. Go outside. Sleep more.

Pay attention. Be curious. Tell the truth. 

Feel your feelings. Feel them all.

Let it soften you. You are strong enough.

Liddy Grantland is a graduating Trinity senior who could not have written a word this year without the help of so many patient people. Thank you Margot, Mihir and Leah, for your thoughtful editing. I’m sorry about all the oxford commas I tried to sneak in. Thank you to each of the sweet people in my life who read various drafts and gently convinced me that they weren’t garbage: Gretchen, Jake, Jake, Rose, Shelley, Dave, Janie, Sumant, Mom and sweet Rebecca, who read every single one. (I do not deserve you.) Finally, thank you, dear friends and total strangers––and the strangers who became friends––who took the time to tell me that my words touched you. I am more grateful for your encouragement than you’ll ever know.

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