A friend of mine went to a benefit dinner recently where the hosts of the event were raising money for the blind. After the guests were seated , the chair of the evening announced that dinner would be held in absolute darkness so the guests would “know” what it was like to be blind. The lights were extinguished and the dinner served by waiters who were sight challenged. The dinner guests reacted by not reacting so used were they to shock tactics to get their attention. My friend was really furious as he felt manipulated, and rightly so, by the plan of the evening. The darkness frightened him and he felt controlled and manipulated by the situation. Evidently others felt the same way as the usual amount of cash did not appear afterwards though no one spoke up at the time. I don’t blame him. I felt the same way today at a training I attended for healers in my town. At one point in the program designed to help volunteers work with those who were ill with cancer, a woman gave a presentation which was focused on the process of grief. She asked us to write on 10 pieces of paper the things we valued most in our lives. Many of us wrote these things down with thought and some pain as we remembered our loved ones and our lives. The leader of this exercise appeared again in front of us dressed in a dime store version of an angel: wings and a gilt halo atop her head. We all laughed nervously when she appeared. She stated in a strange voice, “I am the angel of death! Give me three of your pieces of paper!” We all looked through our papers searching for the ones we could give up without pain. She then asked for three more pieces and we gave her three more. Finally, we were all left with one piece of paper. Supposedly, written on this piece of paper was the most important thing we valued above all else in life. She asked that we give this to her. I substituted a blank piece of paper for this request. Though I clearly knew this was an exercise, I was unwilling to go along with this woman as I felt manipulated by her strange costume and impersonation of “the angel of death.” For me , this exercise was not successful in teaching the concept which I was unsure of. Describing it here in my blog is difficult as it seems relatively harmless but in the room there was an enormous amount of mostly painful emotion. These women were imagining all over again the losses they had suffered in their lives or future losses they might suffer.I believe from what I have experienced with death and loss people learn how to deal with others who have suffered by empathic understanding of the sense of loss. To dramatize the feeling of loss in a false manner and by introducing comedy to the exercise this woman created a feeling of deep sadness within our group. I later commented to this woman on how I felt and what I had done with my slip of paper. Her comment to me in return was that ” I must have a lot of issues surrounding loss to have withheld my piece of paper from her.” I was surprised by this reaction as I usually expect another person to listen to my feedback and not take it personally. She went on to say that she was going to use my story as an example of a person who had “control” issues. I found this inappropriate in any number of ways. I think both of us felt frustrated by the interaction. I find that in todays’ world the advertising industry has decided that shock is the only way to reach people for behavior change. I disagree with this being a Buddhist at heart. I think we all feel enough pain today to last a lifetime and that we feel better and do more good in the world by being shown compassion and loving kindness. I think an exercise in loss shouldn’t be necessary in a group of volunteers who have already decided to give up a part of their time to work with those in pain. Perhaps no one has vocalized this before during this exercise but in vocalizing my feelings I found solace in knowing everyone has the right to be heard and respected. A clear and organized presentation demonstrating the stages of grief would have been a lot more helpful to me.
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