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?