At The Seattle School, we are fundamentally committed to educating, training, and equipping individuals who approach interactions with others with wisdom, creativity, courage, and compassion—especially when national news begins to feel like a parade of tragedy and injustice, when the need for healing relationships is more profound than ever. Here, Graham Murtaugh, a second-year MA in Counseling Psychology student, writes about striving toward relationships marked by compassion and the mutual desire to see the other survive (and thrive), even amidst significant difference. Graham wrote this reflection in June, after the mass shooting in Orlando, but we believe that his words have grown even more essential in recent weeks.

On a bright Sunday in early June I rose early and headed out to Discovery Park for a head-clearing walk in the woods. Driving through a still-sleepy Ballard, I turned on NPR and was quickly aware that Something Had Happened.

Orlando. Pulse. Gay nightclub. Mass shooting. Muslim-American. Terrorism? Radicalized? Unfolding situation. Stay with us.

Again. That was my first thought: another one. Another mass shooting, more dead. It never ends. I tried to catalog it away, another terrible incident to fill the news cycle, to file away and try not to think about. But I kept listening as half-facts and fuzzy details emerged, and as the scene inside the Pulse nightclub began to take on flesh, my best friend Tom popped into my head.

Tom, who I’ve known for close to a decade, is one of those rare friends I can call for anything, anytime. Tom, who I’ve created with, cried with, laughed with, changed with. Tom, who, in strict confidence, came out to me three years ago. Tom, who I’ve watched since then joyfully embrace his full humanity as a gay man, shedding fear and shame to live as he was made.

And, then, suddenly I was thinking of my other friends, in Seattle and around the country, and relatives and folks I work with who are queer. Suddenly I had a whole list of people—faces and names and voices and particular laughs—people I care about, any one of whom could have been at Pulse that night.

It could have been them. It could have been people I love.

Earlier that morning, brewing coffee, on the drive to Discovery Park, I’d been humming Kirk Franklin’s version of “I Need You to Survive.” It’s a gospel song backed by a choir that managed to make its way deep in my body. The day before, standing in a circle and holding hands with over 100 of my peers, Dr. Caprice Hollins played the song for us. It was the culmination of Multicultural Perspectives, an intensive four days spent confronting and wrestling with racism, white privilege and supremacy, and the difficult reality of the world we live in.

Slowly traversing the circle, Dr. Hollins took us by the hands and looked in our eyes. She spent a moment with each of us, singing over us, echoing the words of the choir:

I pray for you, you pray for me.
I love you, I need you to survive.
I won’t harm you with words from my mouth.
I love you, I need you to survive.

You are important to me, I need you to survive.
You are important to me, I need you to survive.

It was a balm of love on the fear and harm we’d admitted to causing, faced in ourselves, or lamented having borne and continuing to bear. I joined in uncertainly at first, singing under my breath, and then as I gained confidence I sang more bravely, the words working their way into me.

In the days since, as I’ve let the lyrics linger, I’ve begun to hear the phrase “I need you to survive” differently. It has two sides, two ways of being held and understood: one is self-centered, one is other-centered. It’s gotten under my skin, to be honest, and left me feeling uncomfortable. So, as Dr. Hollins encouraged us, when the going gets tough, I try to turn to wonder. What is it about this phrase?

The first, self-centered reading is focused on me: I need you to survive. My white, straight, male reality gives me the privilege of hearing in this way, as if, without you I am nothing. It speaks to my fragility, born out of a deeper story, that in order for me to be okay, you have to be okay. The sentiment sounds good, but it makes you—a queer person, a woman, a person of color, a trans person, a person of differing ability—do all the work. It’s a consumptive, devouring, and unhealthy way of relating. And if I’m honest with myself, I can look back and see how often I have attended to others (my wife, my friend Tom, my friends of color) in a way that looks like I’m about them, when really the person I’m worried about surviving is me.

The second way of hearing the phrase—the way Dr. Hollins wanted us to hear it, I think—isn’t about me at all: it’s about you. I need you to survive, not because of what you can do or give me, but because you matter. Period. There’s nothing said about agreeing with, supporting, liking, or being comfortable; qualifications aren’t the point. The point is that you matter just as you are, a person in the world. Our realities and experiences may be wildly different, we may never understand or ever even meet each other, but the simple fact that you are here is enough reason for me to be invested in your survival. The shorthand for this way of being is compassion.

I need you to survive, not because of what you can do or give me, but because you matter. Period.

And here’s the thing: if I’m able to live and love in this second way, it turns out that I get what I need anyway. If I’m able to say “I need you to survive” out of compassion, I am suddenly capable of imagining that you might just be saying the same thing back to me: you need me to survive, too. Compassion, it seems, begets compassion.

If I’m honest, this may be the hardest message for me (perhaps for many of us) to hear. I’m quick to question it, to straight-up disbelieve it. Really? It can’t be. Can it? Jesus, for what it’s worth, was constantly singing this song of loving compassion, trying to get the people of his day (and ours) to pay attention and really hear the truth in it (see Matt. 5:1-11; Matt. 6:26). But whatever your spiritual leaning, the song remains the same: I love you, I need you to survive. Really.

To end at the beginning: sitting in my car, listening to the radio, my tears that dark morning sprang from a deep well of sadness at my own imagined loss: my best friend, people I know and love. What would happen to me? But as I let myself explore wonder and imagine another’s survival as integral as my own, as I begin to foster compassion, my tears take on a new meaning. I can begin to lament not simply for myself, but also for those who carry a grief deeper or more pointed than my own. I can weep with and not for. I can learn to yearn for another’s survival in a new way, and if I am brave enough to listen closely, I can hear them aching for my survival too.