I have two scenarios for you. We’ve all been in variations of both of them. The gist is this: a friend reaches out to me and, for various reasons, I feel inadequate to help or comfort or support or love them. I end up saying or doing something that is unhelpful and maybe even makes the situation worse.
Read on, friends, as I try to work this one out for myself.
Scenario 1: You’re sitting with a close friend at a cafe, sipping coffee or tea, while he opens up to you about the ongoing tension between him and his parents since he came out to them as queer. You’re straight and in a long-term relationship with a person your parents adore. You have no idea what it feels like to be criticized for your sexuality by someone you love. You have never been made to feel that kind of shame, especially not by your parents. You feel like you have no good advice for your friend. You can tell he’s really pained by the situation – really struggling. And as much as you can smile and nod, you feel like your lack of useful advice is a letdown. So in order to avoid further discomfort, you change the subject.
Scenario 2: You’re sitting with a close friend at a cafe, sipping coffee or tea, while she opens up to you about her relationship troubles. She’s been thinking about leaving her partner after feeling abused and mistreated for too long, but she doesn’t know if she has the courage to do it. You don’t get along well with your friend’s partner and you’ve had this same conversation with her many times over the years. You’re nearing your breaking point and you just want to verbally “shake her” – tell her she’s being foolish and she needs to take control of her own life. How long can you just sit here thinking these things while she vents to you? Are you being a bad friend – an accomplice? Each time, you stop yourself from saying anything too harsh because you don’t want to cause a scene or create conflict. But this time you let it all out.
Those of us who’ve been in similar situations are presented with a dilemma; in each case, we are struck by a feeling that we need to act or be the catalyst for change in some way, in order to be a good friend – in order to give another person real love and support.
But I think we can benefit from looking at both of these situations from a different angle. I want to focus on the notion that, sometimes, exactly what we are doing, even though it feels like we are not doing anything at all, is action enough. That thing we are doing when we feel this level of care is being present.
Oftentimes the act of being present for someone else is not simple at all. It can be the most challenging kind of action. In part, it’s about setting aside ego – the feeling that I need to do something in this situation to make me feel like I’ve had a positive impact. In both cases, the question that comes up is “what kind of friend am I if…?” Any time you notice your inner voice saying too many “I’s and me’s” – there, dear reader, is a big, fat red flag. The internal struggle occurs because I am making the situation about me, and my sneaky ego is disguising it as care for another.
We often take for granted that seemingly passive ways of participating in a situation are actually quite powerful – quite active. In these scenarios, there are many active choices happening:
- the choice to take time out of your day to travel to a cafe and sit down with a friend;
- the act of putting your digital device away, in a coat pocket or purse, of clearing any distractions in order to focus solely on that person;
- the act of clearing your mind of passing thoughts, ideas and plans in order to give undivided attention; and
- the commitment to actively listen to what another has to say, to be a witness to their feelings, thoughts, ideas, and secrets; to keep that sharing safe and to honour it through careful acknowledgment.
We can choose not to change the subject, even if we don’t know what to say. We can be curious, ask nonjudgmental questions, and seek to understand our friend’s point of view. And we can sit in listening, intent silence, giving that other person space to say what they need to say.
We don’t often acknowledge how much energy all of this takes. And it can be especially difficult when we can’t relate to or don’t necessarily agree with our friends’ words, thoughts, or life choices.
Don’t get me wrong – I think there is always space for debate, disagreement, conflict and honesty, but only when there is an invitation for that kind of interaction. If that invitation isn’t present, then our choice to prod, poke, or inflame is not about caring for another. It’s about affirming the ego’s need to feel powerful, effective, active, and so on.
There is, of course, a bigger issue attached to this and that is the problem of the energy vampire – the friend who sees you as a willing sounding board and then abuses that offering. In this case, and in all cases, you have no obligation to tolerate someone in your life whose presence is toxic.
Being present for someone else is one of the purest gifts you can give. And receiving that gift is a huge blessing. When you choose to listen and be present, your friend will likely leave you saying, “Thank you so much for listening.” In that moment, promise me this: that you will not wave it off as some kind of simple favour, like giving her a piece of gum or holding the door open for her.
Receive that gratitude and know that your choice to be present was enough.