So, a man calls me up on the phone to tell me some bad news. I cringe and say, “that’s pretty upsetting, but,” I add, “it’ll all work out.” He doesn’t want to hear that. La la la. I’m not sure what he wants to hear, so I give him some advice. “Remove yourself from the situation,” I say. “Look at it from a different perspective,” I say. “Don’t jumble the fact of the issue so it suits your argument,” I say. I don’t know what to say after that. My one-liners fizzle. Everything I come up with gets a comeback that starts with, “No, that’s not entirely possible,” or “I don’t think you understand.”
I try to sit back and listen. Just listen. Like a therapist. But that feels too contrived. Fake. No, I need to be apart of this. I need to get my hands dirty and shake things up a bit. I need to inspire him with some chunk of truth he’s never heard before. So, I rattle off facts:
- people adapt
- worrying won’t help the situation
- there is no reality, only perspective
- this is not bad news, it’s challenging news
But I start to get the feeling that I am embroiling myself in a world that I shouldn’t be in. I shouldn’t be giving advice. That’s insensitive. That’s presumptive. A little too bold. Who the hell do I think I am? Who the hell am I to know the answer to everything? My words are failing…
But, words. I want to take away his pain. That’s all. That’s all I want. I want him not to suffer. So, I think my words will save him. I think, if I can come up with just the right collection of words and string them together in just the right way, I will take away your pain and make things right. And that’s all I want. To make things right for him. That’s what it’s all about anyway, isn’t it?
Communication is about saving someone’s soul, right? It’s about right action, right?
But we go on like this for twenty minutes. Nothing resolved. No resolution. It feels abnormal. Painful almost. I haven’t solved his problem and the bad news is still bad. I didn’t do my alchemical part and turn his metal into gold. In fact, I might be making things worse. And so I fall apart. Speechless. Stammering. Until the route he’s taken has brought him to a place where communication is no longer possible and we slip back into separateness.
I think of how I learned to communicate and expect a beginning, a middle and an end. I spent my entire youth watching those thirty-minute sitcoms we all grew up with. Think Love Boat. Think Fantasy Island. Think Brady Bunch. Week after week of the same thing. A conflict, a resolution, a happy, resolved ending. All loose ends tied up before commercial break, as I sat content upon the sofa letting Jan Brady work it out. Anything less that an Aaron Spelling ending was simply not acceptable.
I never saw my parents “work out” anything via dialog. Sure, they talked. But it was always my dad pacifying my submissive mother. Telling her he was right, she was wrong. “This is the way the world works honey. Just deal.” It was always so black and white. And then the issue never cropped up again. She believed him. And went about her day trying not to question or even notice the nagging loan sharks at the door. All part of the business world, honey.
And then, I spent a couple hours reading MLK’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.” It was so much more than I remember, from when I read it years ago in a college comp class. He talks a lot about his non-violent campaigns, which helped to sway the country in abolishing segregation. Real movement. He says, “there are four basic steps [to a non-violent campaign]: collection of the facts to determine whether injustices exist; negotiation; self purification; and direct action.” I tend to see this manner of communicating as right and good and worthy of positive resolution. Hell, it changed the country. And yet, the very paradox of MLK’s ingenuity and creativity of communicating peacefully, seeking resolution, is that he is sitting in a jail cell writing about it.
At least not at that moment in time.
I think patience. I think that words can save, but they need to cook. They need to sink in. I think that other people have other ideas, which need to be valued and respected, and that communication is not so black and white–I’m not always right, he’s not always wrong. I think there is a lot to be said for saying nothing, and instead supporting with kindness, open ears and an open heart. Listening is not fake if you really listen. I think that not everyone wants to be saved. Sometimes they just want to bitch. And hurl angry sentiments into a phone. And curse the world for being so unfair. And they want to expose their tired, imperfect, scrappiness to you, not so that you will save them, but so that you will Know them and love them anyway…