In the last week I had a discussion with a young friend who’s going through a hard time. I made myself available out of concern and compassion, telling my friend if she wanted to talk I would listen.
So I listened, and asked questions, and did my best to enter into her experience. My agenda wasn’t to rescue, to fix or to advise, just to let her know I cared and help her think about options.
My intentions were good, but I walked away feeling as though I’d only irritated her and made things worse. Ever since, I’ve been questioning what I said and how I handled this interaction. Was I patronizing? Condescending? Obnoxiously optimistic? Aggressively parental? Didn’t I listen well?
Or maybe my questions were the problem, not because they were bad questions but because they were good questions. I’m reminded of people in my life who have approached my distress with the kinds of questions that made me want to hang up the phone or slap their face. Not because they were bad questions, but because they challenged me to break out of the shrinking cage I was in. They challenged me to take control, take responsibility, face my fear or think outside my usual box.
I’m not sure why, but when I’m good and miserable, or at panic stations, or swept up in powerlessness, I want someone to agree with me. It’s hopeless. I’m helpless. It will never get better. I made mistakes, bad choices, stupid decisions and now I’m paying a price I deserve to pay. I’ve dug a hole so deep I can’t get out without some kind of divine intervention. I need to be rescued. I have to wait for someone to help me.
Sitting here writing this it sounds silly, but it’s not silly when you’re in it. We’ve all had times like this. What I know is that my best friends in crisis are the ones who metaphorically kick me in the butt. They won’t walk down the pity path with me. They won’t agree that I screwed up and made bad choices. They don’t admit the past was apocalyptic and the future will be catastrophic.
These people keep redirecting me back to what I can do right now to help myself, and away from everything else, and sometimes they’re not gentle about it.
This is tricky because it’s counterintuitive, at least to me. When I’m faced with a problem, I want to square right up to it, obsess, throw myself at it, beat my head against it and leave the rest of my life unoccupied. It’s either an all-out wrestling match or I eat ice cream out of the carton (a big carton!), stop taking showers, binge watch ‘Buffy the Vampire Slayer’ all night and sleep all day.
Neither of these approaches has worked for me. The only thing that has ever worked is to identify where my power is right now and let the rest go. I don’t know why that works, I don’t know how it works, but I know that it does.
When I was a low-income single mom, what this meant was realizing that summer was ending and the boys would need new winter coats that I couldn’t afford, and we would need groceries a lot sooner than that, but I had no money. And yes, I was working. At one point I worked two jobs and attended school.
Anyway, I developed a habit of shaping the day around what I could do instead of what I couldn’t do. I tried not to think about the next day, the next week, the next winter. I figured out what we’d eat that day from what we had, and I did what I could do—all the things that can be done without money. Like playing with Legos on the living room floor, or taking a walk, or reading aloud to the boys, or doing laundry, or working in the garden, or scrubbing the kitchen floor.
Some days were so hard I just lived five minutes at a time. It was all I could handle.
My kids are in their twenties now. All those five minutes, all those one-day-at-a-times passed and we weren’t homeless, we weren’t without food and we always managed winter coats, thanks to Goodwill. I have no idea how it all worked. I didn’t know then and I don’t know now.
Now, it’s true that I found jobs, got trained and educated, did without things like cell phones and cable TV. I did what I could to help myself through those years, and I had a lot of outside help, too. But my point is I tried not to get stalled with my nose touching a brick wall. I tried to look in another direction—in a direction where I could make choices. Doing that didn’t make the brick wall disappear, but somehow it allowed me to move past it.
Getting back to my friend, I tried to ask questions about where she did have power, but she felt powerless in every direction and the questions only reinforced the feeling instead of helping her reconsider her situation. I left the conversation feeling upset and frustrated and decided I needed to take a step back, give my friend space and let it all unfold.
Interestingly, in the time between that conversation and this minute, my friend got what she needed from someone else, made some hard choices and now sees her way ahead, at least for a few steps.
What I’ve learned from this is that no matter how much I love and care for someone, no matter how much I want to share what I’ve learned in life, sometimes I just can’t be useful or effective. That doesn’t mean, however, that my loved one won’t get what they need from someone else. I’m trying hard to persuade myself this doesn’t make me a failure, but it’s uphill work. Additionally, I have a sneaking suspicion that part of what I feel is nothing more than injured pride. As long as I’m confessing, there might be jealousy in there, too.
I’ve also relearned the thing I wanted to teach. It was clear to me I couldn’t be an effective support to my friend, that I couldn’t make her feel better, that I had nothing to offer that she could use. However, two cords of wood were sitting in our driveway, so my partner turned on music and we stacked it in the barn. He and I cleaned out a closet and I got my fall/winter clothes handy. I was scheduled to work on Labor Day weekend and the day after, so I showed up for work and did my best. I wrote a few pages of my current book and I wrote this blog. Today I swim. It was in the middle of all this that my friend came to me with the beginnings of her own solutions to her own problems.
Maybe my love and concern were only an added pressure for my friend. Maybe the most helpful thing I did was step back and live my own life. That, after all, is where my power is.
I just wish it didn’t feel so inadequate.
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