Scenario #1: Running around happily, your toddler trips over a small hole, falls, and scraps a knee. Tears abound: he is hurt. What are the first words out of your mouth?

Scenario #2:  A friend of yours is going through a painful split with her husband and calls you with an emptiness in her voice. What do you say?

Scenario #3: Your family member has just suffered the death of her pet. What words of comfort do you offer?

 

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What we say and how we say it reveals so much about our view of the world and our beliefs about the human experience. How do we each show empathy in these cases? What are our basic assumptions about human strength and individual suffering?

The friendships I value the most are those that ask everything of me, and by everything I mean: I cherish friends who push me philosophically, challenge my mind to examine life’s nuances, and enjoy working together through Socratic conversation to figure out (or get closer to figuring out) life’s deepest mysteries.

This post today stems most directly from a conversation I had recently with my friend Lauren, though it also indirectly correlates to a written discussion I have been having off and on with my friend Rosa as well as something Uncle George was talking about on New Year’s Day. Trying to explain how all three of these lines of thought connect would probably take an hour or two, and I do find myself wondering where to start…so we’ll see how far I am able to get and where this leads.

I’ll start, I think, with the conversation with Lauren a few weeks ago. I love those little nuggets friends bring up that stay with me for weeks, a vibrant part of my thought life. I saw Lauren today, in fact, for lunch and play time. It’s funny how many times Lauren has offered me something to think about in our friendship (going back now to our teaching credential days) that I continue to think about for weeks, months, or years.

We were sharing our feelings about labor and delivery, apropos since she is due toward the end of January with her third child, a son. Lauren had a homebirth for her first daughter and unmedicated labor in a hospital (as I did with both kiddos) for her second daughter. As my mom did for me both times, Lauren’s mom will be acting as her doula. We were deep into a conversation about unmedicated labor and how we each best work through pain and what we needed/hoped for from the coaches around us when Lauren brought up this idea:

When you are helping someone who is hurt, which of the following am I (or anyone) more likely to say: Are you okay? or You will be okay

There is a  difference between asking, “Are you okay?” and stating, “You will be okay.” What is this difference? We began to ponder.

Lauren is an “Are you okay?” person. I am a “You’re okay.” person. Not a flippant “You will be okay” person, but an earnest, I believe-it-with-my-gut-“You will be okay” person. After observing ourselves with our kiddos and collecting anecdotal data, we know that she and I represent these two approaches.

In her view, asking “Are you okay?” is the first step in getting the hurt person to self-assess and it shows a willingness to hear that perhaps the hurt person is NOT, in fact, okay. From there, if the person is not okay, we can better attend to her needs or an opportunity opens up for a deeper commiseration. All of these points are extremely valuable, and I have actually been trying the “Are you okay?” method very consciously the past few weeks to see what it yields for those I love and collect information. I am seriously considering that asking this question might, in fact, be a better way to communicate concern and love to certain personality types. As someone who dearly loves language and its nuances, and the way these nuances affect feeling and action in others, I am intrigued deeply by the ways in which transforming empathy from a statement to a question might have a stronger palliative affect than I had otherwise considered.

My gut reaction when one of my children gets hurt is to pick that child up, kiss, nestle, and immediately say, “You will be okay.” Or, its cousin: “You’re okay.” In no way are these statements meant to make light of the hurt and they are never said with a discounting or tired tone. When I say, “You’re okay” it is said with conviction and a matter-of-fact tone, as if I know for sure that it is truth. Lauren’s question has made me think, though, about why an empathetic statement is my go-to strategy versus asking how the hurt person is feeling.

When I have probed this in myself the last few weeks, I have uncovered this:

1) Making the statement “You will be okay” is my way of saying: I will do absolutely everything in my power to assure that you okay, and I will not stop until you are.”

2) I approach people assuming they have an underlying strength and that they will tap into that strength when they are down. In the past few weeks, I have thought about how different this assumption is from the assumptions that some of our politicians hold—which is that the individual has little to no strength, or should be held to very low expectations. “You will be okay” is my way of saying, “I know you will fight for yourself. I know you have the tenacity.” It is my way of acknowledging the respect I have for the innate strength within a person.

3) I want to be a buffer. I have known the kind of hurt that threatens to take a person down with it. Falling and getting a boo-boo is not that kind of hurt; a miscarriage, a death of a loved one, an unanticipated divorce or loss of a family member is. Some forms of hurt go very far back into dark tunnels and bottomless pits. This connects to what I wrote a few entries ago about wanting to be the catcher in the rye. To say “You’re okay” is to say, in Sarah-speak: I will throw down my life in front of you before I will let you cross over into those tunnels. You will be okay, because you have the strength to fight for yourself and to pull yourself up, and because if you start to lack the strength, I will do it for you. You will be okay because there is nothing else you can be. You will be okay, and I know this, because I will catch you if I have to. I will die to catch you if I have to.” If I ask the question “Are you okay?” might I be exposing the hurt person to the possibility that he or she will never emerge from the hurt? And what if that person’s answer is “no?”

In many ways, this goes back to the Greenville farm values of the old Matics and McLain families that my Uncle George first shared with us at Grandpa Don’s funeral in one of the eulogies. Uncle George is one of the keepers of our family history and relics, and he shared with us on New Year’s Day the basic family tenets going back over a hundred years—including the idea that many of the Maticses and McLains would have rather died than complained about anything they faced or not performed their hard work. They were a tough breed and expected strength. I know that many of the Amish Yoders were the same way. I have often said that I am not surprised that I am the product of farm stock, dappled with a bit of German-Austrian stoicism and the good humor and youthful look (I still get carded buying certain kinds of paint at the hardware store) of the Norwegians.

Yet not everyone speaks the language of the farm, with its more silent forms of commiseration. I am not sure I always spoke it, either.

I am thinking back now to that afternoon when my high school boyfriend (R.R.) was in a car accident, hit from behind on an off-ramp as he was coming to pick me up. I remember that my first question when he called me really stood out to him. Whereas someone else close to him, he said, had asked about the status of the car, my first question to him had been, “Are you all right?”

I guess my default was to ask a question back then. I wonder what changed. Maybe life changed…maybe I saw how truly unforgiving and unyielding life can be. We need to have strength to make it through. My greatest fear is that my children will not tap into their strength or know it is there when they will need it the most. Because they will need it… We all do.

One other difference between 18-year-old me and 33-year-old me is that, when it comes to my children, it is utterly inconceivable to me that they wouldn’t be all right, no matter what they face. They have to be….just like I have to breathe.

Lauren’s point about the nuance of language has, however, made me reconsider. Perhaps the first step in cultivating strength in someone else is to get them to self-reflect and find it there herself or himself. As a teacher, I used self-reflection as a tool often in my classroom. Should it be any different as a mother or a friend? Yet when it comes to the people I love most…well, I never want to them to get close to the kind of hurt that would make them not okay. I feel like I have to stop them before they get to that crushing place in their minds. Perhaps, though, that isn’t my choice to make.

And for some, asking instead of assuming is a much more accessible display of empathy. I am thinking of relatives I have, and of friends like Lauren herself, who prefer the question and the open ears to hear about the pain that is happening. Lauren said that she would not want to be told “You’re okay” during the labor process, but would want the chance to express herself. Being in charge of one’s own narrative is a sign of inner strength: expressing the hurt and then choosing to deal with it while having the support of friends is courageous.

I am so curious about what you all think: what is the difference, as you see it, between “Are you okay?” and “You will be okay” as expressions of empathy and comfort? Have you noticed if you are more likely to use one over another? What does that say about your beliefs with respect to human nature? When you are hurt, which expression of empathy would you rather have someone use with you?

 

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