Hineini: here I am

Decades ago, I belonged to a therapy group that drew on both talk and movement. One week we did an exercise in which group members took turns leading the others in improvised movement: dancing, swooping, jumping, anything they felt like doing. When a leader had enough, they would pass the role on to someone else.

Afterward, as we sat in a circle, people said that I seemed half-hearted when it was my turn to lead. I confessed that they were right: I was tired, my back hurt, and I didn’t feel like moving at all. I felt like lying down on my back and resting.img_20200428_170718701_hdr-1

Well then, they asked: why didn’t you do that?

My response: I didn’t think I was supposed to. I thought we were supposed to move, and so I moved, even though I wanted to lie still.

In a way, that’s the story of my life: trying to live up to other people’s expectations of me, or what I think they expect, even when I need something different. (Well, that’s part of the story of my life. Another part is where I disregard what other people think and feel, because I’m so sure I know better. Fortunately, I think that part is mostly behind me.)

In the parlance of the Hebrew bible, there’s a special way of signaling readiness to meet expectations: Hineini. Here I am. When God calls to Abraham, and speaks to Moses from the burning bush, they answer hineini. When fathers summon, their sons answer hineini —even when the summons turns out to be near-fatal. Hineini is the verbal equivalent of jumping up and snapping to attention. At your service.

In modern Judaism, people use hineini as a call to service: “We need volunteers. Please let me hear your hineini.” It carries a sense of obligation. Your presence is needed; please show up.

Recently I was struck by an additional way to understand hineini: I am here.

Right here, right now. Wherever I am, I’m already here. Or, to quote the title of a book by the scientist and meditation teacher Jon Kabat-Zinn, Wherever You Go, There You Are.

Hineini, I realized, is not always a response to an external call, an external need. We also need to answer hineini to ourselves, calling ourselves present right here, right now. When the body says “rest,” hineini. When fear, sadness, anger poke and pierce us, hineini: these are my feelings, they hurt, and they need my attention and acknowledgement. As I am called to pay attention to other people’s needs, so I am also called present to my own. I need to show up for myself.

As I walked with a friend on this chilly but beautiful day, we lamented being unable to see our grandchildren during the pandemic. She told of someone with a new, six-month-old grandchild, and I expressed sympathy. A baby can’t engage on Zoom, as our toddler grandson does.

“Just being with you, you always seem so … ” my friend said, searching for the right word. I waited for her to say “calm,” to which I would reply that my calm exterior hides a lot of anxiety.

But she finished with “caring.” The remark surprised me. I’m not sure what prompted it; I hadn’t done anything.

“Just being with you,” she said. I guess I don’t always have to do something. I guess just being is a way to show up for others, and for myself. Hineini.

What is the Mary Oliver Challenge? Glad you asked. You can read about it here.

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