Several friends of mine are going through difficult times right now. The world has dealt — or is dealing — several of them a hand which nobody wants to have to play.
I always feel inadequate in terms of knowing what to say in these kinds of situations.
Some time back, I read a novel (The Unbearable Lightness of Being), a central thesis of which is that because each of us is the embodiment of but one life out of so many billions, what happens in our lives is inconsequential, insignificant, and thus the decisions we make are unimportant.
I would say that because each of us has but one life, that makes what happens and our reactions to what happens all the more important.
When I’ve gone through some bad times in my life — breaking up an eight-year relationship that had been hell, but which I really didn’t want to let go of; getting an 8 a.m. call on December 31, 2003, to tell me I had stage II malignant melanoma (and, oh, by the way, Happy New Year!); learning a beloved uncle walked into his boss’s office and shot two people before killing himself in Florida — people have sometimes said things like, “I know how you feel,” or, “I understand,” or my favorites, variations on “You’ll get over it.” (“You’ll get through it,” “this too shall pass,” and so on.)
And my reaction to that was anywhere from feeling that they did NOT understand, or they wouldn’t say such things, to being pissed off at them for being trite. Occasionally, I could get that they were trying to empathize, but, even then I thought a different way of showing that might be better.
Nobody can ever know exactly what another person is feeling. Nobody can really understand how another person copes (or doesn’t cope) with the vagaries of life. Sure, everyone experiences them — the feelings, the vagaries of life — and the things that happen to us may be similar, but we really don’t all experience them the same.
And even if we did, even when it’s true that “this too shall pass,” somehow saying such things not infrequently feels belittling to the person currently in the agonal throes of existential ache and angst.
And I don’t want to belittle those in pain. I want to help. I don’t know how. Sometimes you just have to let people feel what they will feel; to have and to hold, for as long as the feelings live, the unique pain that is part of their one life.
What I can do is say, “I’m here. I’m going to be here.” I feel with my friends. I don’t know that what I feel is similar, because I know that I don’t understand just how they feel.
I only know that I care about them.