On Her Own reflects on the struggles of living life without traditional support structures. One of the joys of that, though, is the opportunity to be more intentional about creating the kind of family-of-choice, relationships, and, community that can fill those roles in the ways that we most need and want. Doing that requires a bit more effort though, and a whole lot more discernment. Being on our own doesn’t mean that we have to accept scraps of friendship. It means we can – and should – demand more of the people we allow into our innermost circles.
It’s something I’ve been thinking about a lot lately because I’ve been challenging people on my personal Facebook page to consider some of the issues near and dear to my heart. Some have taken those as attacks, while others have been extraordinarily thoughtful and kind. Not necessarily sycophantically agreeable, but friendly and considerate. Those folks have occasionally reached out to me to ask what kinds of responses and behaviors would be most welcomed when dealing with those types of sensitive topics and the people who are most affected by them. My immediate context right now is race allyship but I think the advice I would give and the lessons I have learned in those areas are applicable to supporting any individual or group that you care about as they move through difficult aspects of their lives. It could be racial bias, but it also could be the loss of a close family member or friend, the struggle of fighting a physical or mental illness, the frustration of a dead-end career, and more. It’s really about being a compassionate person.
Listen. Accept that what someone tells you about what they are experiencing is the truth of their experience to them. It may be that you believe their perceptions are skewed in some way, but that doesn’t change what they see and feel. Be gentle in any corrections, and be open to being wrong in your own beliefs too. If you’d like to know more from them, ask questions with genuine curiosity. If you get push back, consider what their reasons are rather than be offended that they are not immediately grateful for your interest or helping you in your understanding. If you want to argue with them, tell them that they are wrong, take a moment to ponder now is the right time, and whether you have the sort of relationship with that person to do so gently and lovingly. Because no matter how wrong they are and how right you are, when people are managing difficult times, going on the attack is just being a ….donkey. Find a less fraught moment, and while you wait for it, find a friendly way of framing your comments.
Check in and let them know you’re listening and that you’re thinking about them. It can be as simple as mashing “like” on a post, or sending a quick text to say hello. It can get more involved by participating in the conversations that they host, if only to let them know you’re reading along, or by inviting them for some live friend-time in person or virtually where they can vent or not, as they like. It can include sending them links that might seem interesting based on what they’re saying they’re concerned about these days. You should know that they might not have the mental energy to respond to you, but that doesn’t mean your messages are unseen and unappreciated. One way you can remove pressure to respond is instead of asking how they’re doing is telling them that you hope they’re doing okay and perhaps that you would welcome hearing from them if and when they’re ready. That latter is especially important in the midst of the most personal tragedies, but it’s a valid way of showing support at other times too.
Acknowledge their entire being. I rarely talk about the super serious stuff with one of my good friends, not because they’re not up for it, but because I appreciate having someone who will leave all of that aside in our regular-life interactions. Sometimes, I just need to talk about unrelated topics. The friend you care about might too. At the same time, my friend acknowledges and is clear about seeing all of me and being available when I need or want to talk about those other parts of me. Be there for the easy parts of life, and be there for the tough ones too. And when your friend is not in crisis, stop in and say hello then too. It’s obvious when you’re a fair-weather type who only wants the “fun” version of a person, and it’s likewise obvious when you only care to challenge and never to support. If you claim to like or respect someone, both are important. Maybe different levels of involvement in different areas, but not a complete absence from one or the other, because that’s how you show that a whole entire person, with all of the things that matter to them, matter to you.
Speak up. If you feel moved or inspired because of what you’ve learned by listening to your friend, and wonder if maybe one way of helping is to say something in a time or place that makes sense to you? You’re right. Telling others that hey, a joke isn’t okay with you; or telling your friend around others that you care about them and appreciate them; or starting a discussion about this really interesting thing you’ve discovered, whether or not you mention where or how; or just…shifting the language you use because you now know that certain words can bother someone you care about. It’s not necessarily about doing so in a way that your friend will see that they have visible support, but about building a community and a culture where kindness and compassion are, well, a thing. This is a difficult step and not one that you might feel is for you – and that’s okay too. But think about it, because maybe you’ll find a tiny moment where it is, and that tiny change you create can do wonders for the world.
I hope you find these ideas useful, even though my thoughts here are partial and reflect only what I’ve found most helpful from folks around me, or things I wish I could see. They’re also an inventory for myself, because I believe – and invite you to believe – that it’s important to try to be a little better of a person every day. And being a kinder, more compassionate human being? That seems like a pretty good goal to me.