In the last few weeks four different people in my circle have been going through different sorts of challenges. I have been able to respond to some more generously than to others, but I have been thinking about the general idea of being able to be present to others.
Some months ago I saw a great diagram on Facebook. It was a series of concentric circles. If my memory serves me correctly the post was on how to help people with serious illness. So in the centre was the person with the illness. The first circle was perhaps the spouse. The second circle the immediate family. The next close friends, followed by more distant friends and perhaps co-workers. The message of the diagram was very simple – if you are really trying to be supportive in a time of difficulty you should not burden someone who is closer to the centre with your own feelings of shock or distress or whatever else.
The point is simply, too often we react without thinking out of our own needs, desires or even pain. In so doing we can completely unintentionally create an additional burden for someone who is already struggling to cope. That can come in different forms – oversharing our own pain is one aspect; but overempathising with the pain of the other will mean that they cannot turn to us for support. Likewise needing to be ‘helpful’ when there is no real help to be given. It isn’t kind or caring it is burdensome.
If you are struggling, find someone further out from the centre to support you. So that you can simply be present to the person you are intending to support. That presence may require a conversation about the situation; it may require a conversation which is far lighter and happy distraction; it may require respecting their need for privacy and retreat.
The only time you get to dictate any terms is when you are in the centre. And the people in the centre should not be held to any of the social niceties of ‘ordinary time’. Perhaps the most important forms of support come in the guise of compassion and generosity of spirit.
I find some people are easier to stand alongside than others. Given the variety of responses I have witnessed from others, I think that is true for most people.There are others who show up wonderfully for those who I struggle with. If you are able to show up and be compassionate and generous do so. If not, it is probably kinder to gently keep your distance.