Standing at the First Gate

June 6, 2009

You cannot hope to build a better world without improving the individuals. To that end each of us must work for his own improvement, and at the same time share a general responsibility for all humanity, our particular duty being to aid those to whom we think we can be most useful.  –Marie Curie 

Inanna, Queen of Heaven and Earth

In an ancient Sumerian myth, Inanna, the Queen of Heaven and Earth, decides to go visit her sister  Ereškigal who lived in the underworld. Inanna, although overly confident and a bit arrogant, was also smart. Before stepping into the bowels of the earth, she asked her faithful servant Ninshubur to wait for her at the underworld’s first gate. Ninshubur was not to follow, just to watch for her return. If she did not see Inanna within three days, the servant was to go get help from the gods. This wise decision saves Inanna later in the story.

When tough times hit, we are indeed wise to enlist a Ninshubur or two; loyal friends with whom we share our troubles.  This caring community pays attention as we journey through difficulties and keep tabs if we have been in the depths of the underworld too long.

Admitting that we are struggling is not a standard cultural norm in US culture. We strive to be on top of our game and independent, so it can be hard to share that we are traveling through disappointment, grief or even depression. Yet, a Ninshubur can save our life.

Cross-culturally, I have found that many death and mourning rituals include a caring community that periodically checks in on those grieving. There are prescribed activities where the mourners must participate with extended family and friends.  The larger group watches “at the first gate” and assures that the family keeps moving forward to the other side of loss.

A wise woman shared her story of acting as a caring community member, “One of my dearest friends committed suicide last fall. She left two children, ages nine and twelve. When she died, the eldest son locked himself in his room and wouldn’t come out. After a few hours, worried, I wrote a note saying, ‘Are you OK in there? Just let me know.’ He responded, ‘I’m OK.’ I then wrote the names of all the people who had gathered in the house that evening who loved him, so he would know that we were all there holding him, and slipped it back under the door. He eventually unlocked the door.

“Six months later, his father needed to go on a trip. I kept an eye on the kids during the week that he was away. Although his grandparents were taking a turn at the house, I received a surprise call from my twelve-year-old friend who asked if I might be coming by the house. All plans were tossed away and said I would. That night I spent the evening watching him do homework and just being near him. That’s the first time he’s called me although I call and visit him often.”

When choosing someone to stand at the first gate, we want a friend who can pay attention and allow us to figure out how to adapt to a bad situation. If you are struggling with a financial crisis, a tough relationship or job loss, enlist a friend who can witness what you are going through without trying to “snap you out of it.” Difficult experiences hold opportunity and learning if we are allowed to work it through. Inanna had to go to the underworld, even though it was a risky venture. There are times when we need to restructure our finances, get out of bad marriages and find new work, even if it seems dangerous and scary. Those who can keep an eye on our progress and overall health are useful members on our “tough times team.”  They let us travel through our difficult circumstances, but make sure that we don’t get stuck within them. 

Deidre Combs

Deidre Combs is the author of three books on cross-cultural approaches to resolving conflict and overcoming challenges:  The Way of ConflictWorst Enemy, Best Teacher  and Thriving Through Tough Times. The books integrate perennial wisdom from the world’s lasting cultural traditions with systems theory and brain research.

Dr. Combs is a management consultant, executive coach, mediator and core instructor in Montana State University’s Leadership Fellows Certificate Program and Columbia University’s Teacher’s College Global Competence Certificate Program. Since 2007, she has also taught intensive leadership training to State Department-selected students, teachers and professional leaders from throughout the Middle East, Africa, Asia, Eurasia, Latin America and Pakistan’s FATA region.

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