Being retired and having more time to pause and reflect has improved my hearing. In fact if I listen well enough I am able to read between the spoken lines and hear thoughts that are not even uttered. One thing that I have noticed for certain is that there are so many more people hurting than I ever before imagined. They don’t always say what they mean or mean what they say. I have to do a bit of translating of their ideas before the real messages become apparent. If I concentrate enough I hear their cries for help. The trick in having so much information is in knowing how to respond.
We’ve had some fairly grim reminders of late of people who were hiding their feelings in plain sight. The consequences of simply ignoring them were tragic and yet we sometimes miss the signals even from those with whom we are very close. We misinterpret the things that they do and say or choose to completely disregard them because they annoy us. We offer pre-packaged advice like fast food and if that doesn’t work we check them off of our lists. We all too often walk away from situations and people that make us feel uncomfortable. It is human nature to do so but it also further isolates individuals who desperately need someone to care.
Facebook is like a repository of painful experiences. There are those who post happy images and pithy little verses that speak of optimism and faith. Once in a while in between all of the fluff they have moments when they share their real fears. The comments from their friends range from “don’t be silly” to “you can do this.” Rarely does anyone simply type the words that they most need to read, “I am so sorry. What can I do? I love you!” Even worse is that even when we do in fact choose the right words, we generally don’t follow up our concern by checking on the person’s well being. We hope that our encouragement will suffice and move on with our lives.
The people who need us the most often come across as being obsessively negative. They continually complain without ever revealing the depth of their real problems. They are downers who can’t seem to find the good in this world. We have a tendency to tune them out or to tell them to get a better attitude. We criticize them without really knowing what is making them this way. I often found that the most belligerent students that I taught were hiding terrible secrets that kept them in perpetually dark moods. They were angry about their fates and took out their frustrations on everyone around them. In reality they had no safe place to go. They did not know how to express themselves and worried that if anyone learned the truth about their situations they would be ostracized. They appeared not to care when in reality they were consumed with guilt, frustration, and terror. Sometimes they had built walls so thick around themselves that they were like fortresses. Helping them meant spending hours taking down the fortifications that they had carefully constructed to protect themselves.
When we encounter someone who always seems to be a downer we may in fact be misinterpreting what they are saying. There are those who are dealt some very difficult hands in life and they learn how to arm themselves against forces over which they have little control. Their audaciousness and flippant attitudes sometimes mask the realties that are their lives. When they direct anger and hate to the outside world it should signal to us that they are in dire need. I have actually messaged people who were ranting on Facebook, asking if they are okay and assuring them that I care about them. Sometimes my efforts to reach out to them are ignored but most often they spill their deepest thoughts. It becomes apparent to me that all that they really needed was for someone to realize that they were hurting and to acknowledge that it is okay to have such feelings.
As humans we all react to challenges and tragedies differently. It would be wonderful if we were all capable of maintaining total optimism even in the face of unbearable events. We’d all like to be those heroes who inspire everyone and who never seem to get ruffled. The truth is that few if any of us are always so unflappable. Some of us are better at hiding our emotions but all of us have experienced those times when we were frightened, deeply sad, disappointed, and angry. Some turn to prayer, others to friends or family, many go within, a few strike out at the world in a state of confusion. It’s easy for us to console those who are positive and upbeat. It is less so when we are confronted with people who have hit a wall so hard that only negative thoughts come from them.
Most people are not really looking for advice when they are down. They generally let us know if that is what they seek. Instead they desire consolation, compassion, and understanding. Unfortunately we all fall into the trap of seeming to judge them when we urge them to “hang in there” or to “get a grip.” We often pretend to comprehend what is happening to them when we have never had similar experiences.
A dear friend often spoke of how tiring it was to make everyone else feel better about the fact that she was dying of cancer. They wanted her to be prayerful and joyful that she would soon be meeting God. The truth was that she was angry and wanted to ask God why he had chosen her for so much suffering. She wanted to watch her grandchildren grow and to continue to love and care for her husband, her children, and her friends. There was so much more that she wanted to do and she found little joy in the prospect of leaving the earth before she felt that her life had been adequately completed.
I sometimes would mistakenly tell my friend that I knew that she didn’t mean the things that she said. I wanted her to create one of her famous “rainbow days” for me. She needed a confidante who would allow her to express the thoughts that were plaguing her mind. I let her down far too many times because it pained me to hear her truths. I eventually learned how to just sit and listen to her and to allow her to get the dark thoughts out into the open. That is all that she ever really wanted and needed from me. At that point there was absolutely nothing more that I could possibly do. Her fate was sealed and all that she asked for was love and the reassurance that it was okay to rage against the dying of the light.
I have learned much from perusing Facebook each day. There are those who appear to possess a natural ability for knowing exactly what to say and do for those who are crying for help. I have changed my own ways and my own style of answering the unspoken pain that surfaces daily from this person and that. It is an art that I have not yet perfected but I am getting there.
Each of us is living life as best we can. Some of us do indeed have advantages from the time of our births. We were lucky enough to have loving parents and to grow up in healthy environments. We were given the gift of faith in a God who cares for us and protects us. We have tools for living at our disposal because along the way there were people who took an interest in us. For many it is not so. They have endured abuse. Their worlds are chaotic and uncertain. It is up to those of us who possess the “riches” of security and safety to help our fellow men and women who are less fortunate. When they speak to us we must really listen. Only then will we hear what they are trying to say. Only then will we understand how to help them. It is a daunting task but it will have more impact than we might ever imagine.