“Is it better for you now?”
“Honestly, no. I know it’s taboo to say so, but…”
And my heart, as it has so many times, shattered. I bent to collect the bleeding shards and realized that my dear friend was right. How many times a day do we casually toss the words “how are you,” into the world, without really stopping to listen to the answer? Everything about our demeanor when we do this suggests a passing exchange rather than meaningful engagement. So, the soul on the receiving end of this flippant query slaps on a smile and swallows the words that jostle and tangle and ache to spill out.
I fear that it goes deeper than that, frankly.
Taboo. Unthinkable. Distasteful. Off limits. An admission of struggles, a cry for help flung into the world is too often met with exasperated impatience. As though it’s a matter of simply cheering up, or bucking up, or playing with the pain, or whatever ridiculous vaguely locker-roomy phrase you care to substitute. No, most us want to appear polite, flash an empty smile, and go about our day. It’s easy to pretend that all is right with the world, especially if you won’t meet the eyes of someone in pain. Especially if you have ensured that any halting confession, any vulnerability is swiftly quashed with an abrupt, “it could be worse, you know.” This is the equivalent of stepping around a myocardial infarction in progress. It’s willful ignorance of weary hands pressed against your windows as the thunderheads roll in.
While I do think we’re collectively guilty of self-absorption, I don’t believe that most people are malicious in their reaction to those in need. No, I think this has to do with personal discomfort arising from not knowing what to say. The feelings of helplessness that swell upon recognition of anguish in another can sometimes manifest as embarrassment, awkwardness, or mortification. It becomes akin to a fight or flight situation, and many choose to flee, rather than deal with the difficulty.
I would like to remedy this unfortunate reaction. Because, perhaps naively, I truly believe that we all have the capacity to make a positive difference in the life of another. I understand that deep, intense feelings can cause an instinctive step back. This stuff isn’t easy. But knowing where to start may allow you to plant your feet and open your arms… get the metaphorical kettle on and brew some love.
As I’ve mentioned ad nauseam, I work in healthcare. Over the years, I’ve found myself in a wide variety of difficult situations in terms of therapeutic communication… everything from fetal death in a term pregnancy to abortion, attempted suicide to terminal cancer. This hardly makes me an expert, but it has taught me a lot about what can help, and what has the potential to cause further hurt.
“It could be worse, at least you have…”
Please don’t say this. I know the intention is pure, but this simple phrase has the power to invalidate feelings in a heartbeat. Chances are, whoever you are talking to is not unaware of the good things in their life. But sometimes struggles overwhelm, and your words may only enhance guilt rather than serve as a reminder of the positives.
“Don’t feel that way…”
If you think about it, this is an outstandingly presumptuous statement. Feelings are erratic beasts and are notoriously difficult to control. If we could all just “not feel that way” don’t you think we would? It’s not as though this person is simply waiting for you to utter this edict in order to carry it out.
Or the equally infuriating, “calm down, you’re overreacting.” This is yet another response that reads like a command. As with the other examples, it serves only to invalidate feelings and extinguish further conversation. This, to me, is vastly disrespectful, perhaps more so than anything else I’ve discussed. It’s belittling and condescending all within a few careless words. No one in the history of humanity has ever relaxed simply because someone ordered them to.
The good news is, what you can say is pretty simple. Chances are, the wounded soul you are conversing with isn’t looking for answers or expecting you to solve problems. Rather, they need a safe space in which to express and explore difficult feelings. Listen. Without judgment. Ask open-ended questions that encourage more discussion. The name of the game is love, caring, and empathy. These are precious gifts that are so easily given, and so gratefully received.
And then…If you are very fortunate, the unassuming and impervious stone flakes away at your touch, revealing the geode within. In pools of jewel-toned color, glittering and unexpected, you discover treasure where no one has bothered to look.
“My great hope is to laugh as much as I cry; to get my work done and try to love somebody and have the courage to accept the love in return.”
To my cherished friend. You know who you are. Thank you for the inspiration, thank you for trusting me, and thank you for being you. You’re loved.