In the show “The Good Place,” the leaders of the Bad Place devise ways to torture people. Perhaps their most cruel tactic was what they called “skin suits.” The torturers were hidden inside the body of someone you loved so that you’d be fooled into thinking they were safe, loving, there for you… and then they’d do something awful to you. You’d feel that internal confusion of “who are you? Why are you doing this to me? I don’t even recognize you…”
And it struck me how much this reflects what it’s like to love someone consumed by mental illness, substance or alcohol use, or dementia. On the outside the person still looks like our person, but on the inside, they’re not really there. We look into their eyes trying to connect, but we just can’t find them. They act in ways that the person we know and love never would. They do things that are hurtful to themselves and to us.
It’s sad and it’s lonely and it’s a unique form of grief to mourn the loss of someone who is still alive. To love this person deeply. To not have had a chance to say goodbye. To have moments of connection and clarity which bring with them a bit of hope… and then to have that hope crushed to the point where you don’t dare to feel it again.
What can we do when the person we see is so unfamiliar to us? So far from the person we’ve known them to be? Lost, even to themselves? We can turn to radical love. The love that carries us through impossible times and takes us to unimaginable places.
The terms “radical acceptance” and “radical empathy” have been shared in recent trainings. Tara Brach has written books titled, Radical Acceptance and Radical Compassion, so these radical terms are floating around, perhaps more and more frequently and more and more in a positive way.
What’s “Radical" All About?
So, let’s get curious… what is this “radical” all about? Before I look it up (which I will), what comes to mind is a sense of extreme (it’s often connected to not such positive groups). In these cases of acceptance, compassion, empathy, and love which all represent qualities of kindness and care, it speaks to the times we show up in ways and at times we couldn’t believe possible. It speaks to a love that binds us even when our loved one doesn’t recognize us or isn’t available to connect with us in the way we long for. This, to me, is radical love.
Radical love holds you while you sit in the Emergency Room waiting room with your loved one in mental health crisis, feeling both the judgmental stares and the averted glances, feeling invisible and oh too visible all at once. Radical love walks with you through the razor wire fences to sit in the barren room on a cold hard plastic chair to visit with your child under the watchful eye of a correctional officer. Radical love breaks your heart open and brings tears at the smallest act of kindness in an unexpected place. It drives across country with you to visit your parent as they plot their escape from the memory care unit, and it helps you to feel both the sadness and the humor all at once.
Radical love allows you to see the humanity in the homeless person shuffling down the street. Radical love makes the sandwich that you hand to her, without judgment in your eyes. Radical love shows up to serve those who are too often overlooked and misunderstood.
Radical Love Reminds You That You Too Matter…
Radical love also reminds you that you too matter. That your well-being and sanity are worthy of your tender care. That it is ok to take a break, to take a breath, to tend to yourself. Radical love lifts the phone out of your hand, turns it off, and tucks you in so that you can get the rest you need to face the crisis that surely awaits. Radical love reminds you that it’s unsustainable to be all things to all people all the time, so it quietly lifts your cape from your shoulders and brings you a cup of tea.
Why is this love radical? Because we’re conditioned to make sure everyone else is ok, especially the people we love, especially when they are suffering or struggling. We’re not told that we too have needs or that even in the midst of heartache and despair you can also enjoy some time with a friend or dance with true joy or meditate in the forest.
Society tells us “You’re only as happy as your unhappiest child.” Or “You have to do something…” even if there’s really nothing you can do. Our beliefs keep us going even when we have nothing left to give. Radical love is needed to remind us that we’re no good to anyone if we’re depleted. It calls us to gentle ourselves and to forgive ourselves when we couldn’t make someone else change, when we couldn’t save a life. Radical love requires radical self-compassion as well as compassion and empathy for others.
The expert’s voice…
I promised I'd look it up, and I did. Merriam Webster defines radical as “very different from the usual or traditional: extreme.” I wonder what it will take for these acts of empathy, love, and compassion to become more usual or commonplace. I hope we can be part of this shift in a world that is crying for more of these qualities.
In her book, Radical Acceptance, Tara Brach describes it as “the cultivation of mindfulness and compassion.” She goes on to say that “Radical Acceptance reverses our habit of living at war with experiences that are unfamiliar, frightening or intense. It is the necessary antidote to years of neglecting ourselves, years of judging and treating ourselves harshly, years of rejecting this moment’s experience. Radical Acceptance is the willingness to experience ourselves and our life as it is.”
In Radical Compassion, she says it “…means including the vulnerability of this life – all life – in our heart. It means having the courage to love ourselves, each other, and our world. Radical compassion is rooted in mindful, embodied presence, and it is expressed actively through caring that includes all beings.” She writes, “I have to love myself into healing. The only path that can carry me home is the path of self-compassion.” How beautiful is that... loving ourselves into healing!
Today I invite you to explore these ideas for yourself… radical compassion, radical acceptance, radical empathy, and radical love. Let’s be EXTREME with scattering these ways of being. Where can you bring them into your world? What changes within you and in your experience when you do? How does it feel to approach yourself, others, and life from a radically kinder stance? I've recorded this meditation as a way to support you in stepping into this.
When you next encounter someone you care about and find they’re wearing a skin suit, see if you can look beneath the surface to find the soul within and love them anyway. It isn’t personal. They’re just not able to be who you know them to be in this moment. Maybe your remembering will help them to remember who they are one day… maybe your love will help you remember who you are.
Please let us know your thoughts and experiences. Let’s learn and grow together in a radical way!