A couple of months ago, someone—I’ll call her Gail—asked me if I’d help her with a problem she had. As she talked about her situation, I soon realized that she was so tangled up in it, she couldn’t let go of the story long enough to sort out what she wanted. When I tried guessing what her needs might be she jumped right into judgments. “How could they hire that guy? Don’t they see what a mess he’s making?!” My inquiry only seemed to make things worse.
I felt sad and helpless. I wanted to find a way to ease her suffering, and there wasn’t anything further I could say that was going to help her feel better.
After talking with Bryn, I realized there were two lessons here. First, it wasn’t ever possible for me to resolve Gail’s suffering because I’m not her. With deep humility, I must admit that that’s her path to find.
Second, I realized that the helplessness I felt came from the assumption that I hadn’t helped. But actually, I had—because listening is helping. It conveys support, care, and compassion even when no words are spoken. Listening meets each person right where they are, and by its nature offers safety and reassurance no matter what suffering there may be, even if we can’t see the results of this.
My takeaway? Compassion sometimes means that I’ll leave a situation feeling sad and disheartened over the difficulty a friend or family member is facing. I might even feel compelled to find a way to fix it for them so I can feel better. But in the long run, I can’t, and that’s just reality. What I can do is listen and, for that moment, help to ease the suffering that’s there. And, that, as it turns it out, is quite a lot.