Saturday, 29 December 2012

In two minds

I always feel ambivalent about other people’s miseries. On the one hand I want to help them and make them feel better. On the other, I don’t want their misery to deflate my own happiness.

Should I respond altruistically or selfishly? Should I think of their well-being or my own? Should I leave them to sort out their own negative feelings or ride to the rescue?

I think this ambivalence is quite common. Although there’s a huge market for books about people’s miserable past, about the abuse and neglect and poverty and self-hatred, in our daily life we may turn away from a stranger’s rambling hard luck story with a dismissive shrug. It may be too much to handle if we’re already wrestling with a dozen problems of our own.

Some people’s misery is so personal, so rooted in their own psyche and their way of seeing things, that it can be hard to relieve it however much we try. Any amount of sympathetic listening, intelligent advice or tough talking may cheer them up for half an hour but then the misery returns.

Also, misery can be very multi-layered. It can take time to dig out the exact cause. What someone tells us to begin with may be only the most trivial bits, the bits that are easiest to talk about. It may take a lot of patient coaxing to get to the heart of what’s clawing at them.

If it’s someone we love, that patience is easily come-by. But if it’s a mere acquaintance, we’re nervous about what we might be getting into and we’re more cautious with our concern.

And of course people often hide their misery. It’s embarrassing to confess that they don’t enjoy life. They see it as a personal failure, a temperamental flaw. They’d rather keep this awful affliction to themselves. We may guess at their private sorrow, but there’s no way they’ll talk about it.

But if it’s possible to ease someone’s misery and make them a little happier, it’s one of the most satisfying feelings in the world. What more can you do for another human being?

30 comments:

Rummuser said...

Showing compassion is a tried and tested method to escape our own fears. I am not ambivalent at all. If someone needs and asks for it, I am ever ready to lend a shoulder to cry on or a couple of well oiled ears to listen. Often, just those two things work.

Nick said...

Ramana: That's very warm-hearted of you. You're a lovely guy! Of course you do have plenty of time to spare, now you're no longer a wage-slave!

Bijoux said...

I agree with Rummmuser that most people just want to know someone cares enough to listen. Where I draw the line is books or movies with depressing stories, true or fiction. I just don't care to cry during my entertainment.

Secret Agent Woman said...

Not me. Friends, yes, strangers, no. I spend all day every day listening to people's stories, when I'm out and about I want to be left alone.

Grannymar said...

I'm one of life's listeners, but if someone repeats and repeats the same thing over and over for weeks on end, without trying to change or move forward a little, then I withdraw and suggest they find qualified professional help.

Nick said...

Bijoux: I guess you and Ramana are right about just wanting someone to listen. I'm okay with depressing books or movies as long as they're intelligent and interesting. I don't cry very much so that's not a problem.

Agent: Ah yes, I can understand you wanting some peace and quiet once you've left the consulting room.

Grannymar: I'm with you there. Listening to the same old gripes over and over is no help to anybody.

kylie said...

you know, someone listened to me gripe and moan for a few years. it must have been hellish for him but my gratitude will never die. i needed to talk so i could arrange my internal world and heal somewhat and it wouldnt have worked if there had been a limit on his listening.

Nick said...

Kylie: You were very lucky someone was so willing to listen and help you sort yourself out. People without anyone to confide in are seriously bereft.

John Gray said...

As a nurse I have slowly learnt not to be depressed by the woes of folk. If things become personal, then you are as useless to them as a chocolate teapot....

kylie said...

i was immeasurably blessed but my point is that where possible the listener should try not to put a limit on their listening because sometimes people need a lot of processing

Nick said...

John: I daresay some patients try to spill their personal problems to a nurse with a friendly face. It must be hard sometimes to focus on the job in hand and not get too involved.

Kylie: Yes, I see your point. Some people need a lot of time to talk things through and adjust to the situation they're in.

Anonymous said...

I live to listen to people's stories...

Weird stories, shaggy dog stories, trauma stories, dreams, fantasies, crying, whining, whatever people want to lay on me. From friends, from lovers, from strangers, whatever, whoever, whenever. Yes. Bring it.

:-)

(Leah)

Anonymous said...

I think that's very true, and why not exercise patience with people? It doesn't cost anything, and in fact learning to listen without trying to "solve" things or rush it is an invaluable skill that translates well to one's own life.

(Leah)

Jenny Woolf said...

An interesting post, Nick. I think there are different kinds of misery. Some people use it as a way of getting attention, others are going to be miserable whatever, because of their lifestyles. I used to be sympathetic about people like that but these people can actually be quite abusive underneath it and so I have finally learned not to get involved. I do get involved if someone who I find is generally okay is suffering because of some outside event. Then it can be rewarding to really help as you say.

May your own 2013 be a happy one.

Ursula said...

Am totally with Kylie: What length of string does a friend's patience stretch to?

Remind me to never ask you, Nick, to lend me a fiver.

U

Nick said...

Leah: You must have a sympathetic face! People don't tend to bring me their stories, whatever kind they may be. There must be a slight wariness in my expression! But that's good that you're so ready to listen.

I am actually quite a patient person. I can happily absorb all sorts of things that would drive Jenny nuts! And I agree, trying to jump in and "solve" things can be a big mistake.

Nick said...

Jenny: I'm glad you have those reservations, I was beginning to think I was a nasty, ungenerous person! "Some people use it as a way of getting attention, others are going to be miserable whatever, because of their lifestyles." I do agree. Sometimes trying to help someone can be unproductive and frustrating for just those reasons.

Nick said...

Ursula: As I said, I'm a pretty patient person on the whole. If someone really needs to get something off their chest, I'm very ready to listen for as long as it takes.

When I was young someone advised me "Neither a borrower nor a lender be" and I've more or less stuck to that. Of course if a close friend needed money desperately, I would see what I could do. But I don't think you're short of a fiver somehow :-)

Jay at The Depp Effect said...

I read a little ... thing ... the other day. Not sure what to call those 'pictures with added words' that float around the internet; aphorisms, mottos, quotes ... what have you. You know the sort of thing.

It said something along the lines of 'avoid people who whine, they're not good for your soul', only in Italian.

There's a lot of truth in that. But equally, we should definitely try to help where we can, because yes, it is one of the best and most satisfying things you can do for another human being. I guess the trick is to distinguish between the genuine cry for help, and the whining.

Macy said...

I think Kingsley Amis put it best:

Life is largely grief and labour
Two things help you through:
Relief when they hit your neighbour,
Whining when it's you

Nick said...

Jay: Indeed, how to tell the genuine cry for help from the whining. Sometimes that can be very tricky, you just have to leap in and hope it's not merely a well-rehearsed aren't-I-hard-done-by routine.

Macy: Very good, I haven't seen that before. Yes, schadenfreude is a common reaction when it's someone else who's in trouble.

Liz said...

I'm trying to catch up on blog-reading - and failing.

Some people do a lot of moaning. By reading Facebook statuses you can get a good idea of someone's personality. You soon pick out the always-something-going-wrong-for-me ones.

I wish a very wonderful 2013 to you and Jenny.

Nick said...

Liz: Yes, when there's always something going wrong in a person's life, you have to think "hmm, maybe your own personality is contributing here?"

Wisewebwoman said...

Well I love stories and I do believe I'm very empathetic having been in dark places myself so can relate.

No one ever wants advice. Truly. They just want affirmation they're OK and someone understands.

As to repetitive moaners, they need to be told to shyte or get off the pot. Gently.

BUT they rarely do IMO.

XO
WWW

Nick said...

www: Nobody ever wants advice? I find it depends. Sometimes people want advice, sometimes they only want a sympathetic hearing. But yes, repetitive moaners are a total waste of time. They're just depressing.

Wisewebwoman said...

Nick:
To clarify - people SAY they want advice but they've already got their minds made up before they ask. 99% of the time.

XO
WWW
PS Many Happies to yourself and Jenny for 2013!

Nick said...

www: Yes, I think that's true. People say they want advice, you give them advice, and then they totally ignore what you said.

Nick said...

A Happy New Year to all my blogmates. May the year be full of delightful surprises!

Roses said...

An interesting post and one that I grapple with, both as someone who whinges and whines about the same thing day in day out and as someone who listens to other people.

There are some people who have whinging rights in my life, for them I'll get up at 3 am and make them coffee or tea, but those are few and far between.

My tolerance for listening sympathetically has diminished greatly and not because I don't care, but rather because I care too much. Watching someone be self-destructive and listening as they try and 'process' the effects of their self-destructive behaviour, in the long-run is neither useful nor productive for both of us. I find it very distressing.

If someone wants to talk to me about the things they want to try out, to do different, to find a different way...I'm all ears. I'm there 100%.

If they just want someone to listen as they go 'woe is me' yet again, then they need to find a good therapist or counsellor, I'm not going to be any use to them at all.

Nick said...

Roses: I think that's exactly the right approach. No point in indulging people who just want to moan non-stop or shoot themselves in the foot. Better to support those who genuinely want to improve their lives.