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Life and communication coaching for women.

The Ungiven Gift


The Ungiven Gift

Marina Smerling

A confession: I struggle, big time, with projections of “the enemy” on all kinds of political faces.  Around healthcare, immigration, Standing Rock, police accountability – oy – I shut my heart’s door faster than you can say “empathy,” and indeed, that closed door, drenched in right-ness, wins out.

The door is justified.  It contains briefcases full, shelves full, hard drives full of evidence: the actions of the enemy are simply reprehensible, unconscionable, inconceivable.  The enemy appears to be – but clearly is not – human.  Clearly, they need to relinquish their flesh-like costume and evaporate back into the lower dimensions from whence they came.

The nonsensicalness of it hurts.  Living in a world that just.doesn’t.make.sense hurts.  The loss of faith, or the lack of rational ground upon which faith can grow in the first place – it gnaws at my soul.  I so want a world that makes sense, a world to believe in.  I know so many of you do, too.


I’m stepping out on a limb here.  As I write the following words, I fear getting it wrong.  I worry my desire to unveil the humanity in the enemy will so, too, unveil my ignorance.  Indeed, my awareness is limited by my privilege, by only so many decades of life, and by my particular experiences – and yet, I don’t know any other way. It hurts to shut the door.  It hurts to live in a world that doesn’t make sense.  And I worry I become a *less* effective change agent as a result.

Thus is born this half-missive, or this missive-in-perpetual-progress, because although my thinking and feeling around this topic is ever shifting and evolving, even this half-portion feels too important to stuff into the dustbin of would-be-someday’s.

And as this recovering Virgo forever aspires: no more waiting for perfection.


I’ve been thinking a lot lately about Standing Rock.

It’s common knowledge that you don’t dig holes in your neighbor’s yard, much less a pipeline, without their consent.  You ask.

Like any decent human being to another human being, you ask permission.  You get their buy-in.  You get consent.

This is a simple extrapolation of the Golden Rule that we learned in kindergarten, no?

“Help me to understand,” I pray.  How can one human being do this to another?

The only answer I can muster that even begins to piece our non-sensical world back together is simple: fear.

I imagine the executives of Energy Transfer Partners in their high-stress, stringent deadline, make-the-numbers day-in-and-day-out world.  I imagine them scared of not performing, not getting the promotion, losing their jobs.  I imagine them scared for their families’ well-being and for their appearance among their peers.  I imagine them, like so many of us, wanting approval, belonging, a place in the tribe.

Of course, our “enemy” executives may not look the part.  They may be wealthy and white and male in a world that privileges those who are wealthy and white and male over the rest of us, but I ultimately imagine them to be scared: missing a sense of connection to life, a sense of safety in their bones, a fundamental sense of security and accompaniment in their nervous systems when they walk into headquarters each day.

Hurt people hurt people.  Scared people do, too.

Yet oppression is rarely personal.  Seldom intentional.  Mostly unconscious.

We humans love contributing to life.  Gifting a flower.  Speaking a kind word.  Offering directions to someone lost in our neighborhood.  I recently escorted a wayward turtle across a busy road here in Gainesville, and I was uplifted for days.  We love to make a difference, to leave the world a better place than that in which we found it, to treat others with the respect, dignity, and kindness with which we would like to be treated.

When we intentionally or unintentionally step on someone else’s toe, we don’t get to give our gift.  Our desire to contribute to life gets missed.  Herein lies the second tragedy: in a world where we are divided, taught to fear one another, taught to take up arms and attack even, taught to profit-no-matter-what and no-matter-who, so many of our hearts die unknown.

Alongside the threat of pollution to the Standing Rock Sioux’s water, the desecration their sacred cultural sites, and the fundamental overriding of their voices, perpetuating 500 years of displacement and colonization since Europeans stumbled upon this land, there’s another tragedy: the humanity of pipeline executives lying in ruins, their deepest gift ungiven.

I thus imagine the power of a kind but firm hand on their backs, saying, “Tell me about it…” – the stress, the fear of failure, the fear of rejection, that which keeps them awake at night.

And I imagine, if they received enough of this, how love might return to their stressed-out bodies, and space to their wracked left brains.  I imagine how deep emotional support might impact their capacity to sit in the unknown, to tolerate another perspective, and feel empathy for someone whose life experience diverges wildly from their own.  I imagine what gifts they might give.


Our collective liberation depends upon raising awareness of inequities and systems of domination.  And yet, it seems to me, half the equation.

The other half is about connecting.  Tending to the blind one.  The one wildly swinging their arms like Edward Scissor Hands, wounding those they would love if they knew how, the ones unaware of the harm they inflict in both directions – upon both their neighbors and themselves.

Tending to the lost ones, whose way home has become obfuscated by the stressed-out fray.

Daring to ask: “What’s going on here?” and meaning it.  Being willing to look, to get down on our knees, to put our ear to the frozen chest of the politically and economically powerful, and listen.

Despite our conditioning to listen for evil, it’s something else we are likely to hear.

It’s thus that we begin to nourish not just our personal, but our collective nervous system.  Offering empathy to “the enemy,” letting their poisonous strategies sift through our fingers, and unearthing their precious needs.  Holding tight to those needs – for safety, support, belonging, respect – and asking how else they might get met.

I don’t know what it looks like – a widespread attempt to fill this dearth of empathy across vast political and social divides.  But I can’t help but sense that many of our attempts at social change are missing a fundamental piece of the puzzle – our capacity to get curious about “the enemy,” and to imagine what it’s like to be in their bodies, what traumas and old hurts run deep in their psyches that need a slow, gentle tending to in order to be unearthed and released.

We start where, and with whom, we can.  When I’ve discussed this with my partner, he immediately brings up Trump.  I’ll admit – I’m not ready to go there – I need a hell of a lot more empathy before I can begin to get curious about his inner workings.  We start where we can, and practice a whole lotta mercy for ourselves along the way.


We start by getting support ourselves – for all the pain and outrage and heartache of living in what feels like a hopelessly cold and callous world.  Seeking spiritual and physical and emotional hands at our wary backs until we can stand upright, raise our heads, and ask of our so-called enemies, “What hurts?”

I pray:

May we dare to ask for help in all the places where our hearts’ doors have slammed shut.  May we compost our hatred into curiosity.

May our enemies exhale deeply.  May they find the safety and security and peace in their nervous systems, and no longer be compelled to dig for that security in the form of a trench that tears through their neighbor’s land and dignity alike.

May we all have an internalized sense of “friend” and “company” and “not alone.”  May we all be freed to offer the gift of our undefended love.

Ultimately, may we dare to empathize not just for the “enemy,” but for ourselves.  For our own sanity, capacity to make sense of an outrageous and seemingly insane world, and ability to walk in this world with the full and open heart that is our birthright.

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