How do you serve a friend in despair?
That was the title of an opinion piece I read in the New York Times earlier this year. It was written by columnist David Brooks, and it recounted—painfully and poignantly—the experience he had watching his childhood friend struggle through severe depression, a disease that resulted in him losing his life to suicide. The hallmark of this time period for him was the experience he had of not knowing how to be there for his friend who was suffering. He struggled to find the right words, to find the correct approach of support, and was bewildered by the sense of impotence this caused him. He wanted so desperately to help, so why couldn’t he?
After his friend’s death, a mutual friend of theirs wrote to him, and this passage from that letter has stayed with me:
“True friendship offers deep satisfaction, but it also imposes vulnerabilities and obligations, and to pretend it doesn’t is to devalue friendship.”
As I contemplate this and even as I write this blog now, I have many friends who are suffering unimaginable pain in the face of senseless tragedy. While it isn’t the same as watching a friend slowly succumb to mental illness, it feels just as impossible. How do we go about caring for each other when we have no idea how to do it? When the darkness they are facing is one that is unprecedented for us both? It’s easy to do what David Brooks eventually defaulted to: acting as though everything will be okay in hopes that it will inspire the other person to see that it’s going to be okay, too. There’s merit in that, and yet, it isn’t supportive. He’s a good person, he’s incredibly thoughtful, and he wants to be there for his friend, but it actually ends up—as it does for so many of us—being within the context of what we would want.
It makes sense, right? We imagine what we would want if we were struggling, and we give that. Sometimes, this can be good and can be very supportive, especially if we have been through a similar experience. But more often than not, it is not the best way to be a friend. And in the face of the tremendous challenges that so many in our community are facing—friends and family alike—how do we do this?
The answer is empathy and radical vulnerability.
Almost 15 years ago, Brene Brown took to the TED stage to share about vulnerability, and this talk has since been viewed over 20 million times. It is #5 on the top ten list of the most viewed TED Talks of all time. She also gave a talk on the power of empathy and how vulnerability is a necessary piece of being able to empathize. This talk—which has been turned into a very comforting animated conversation between a bear and a gazelle—has also been viewed over 20 million times. I point out the popularity of these videos because real vulnerability and real empathy are something so many of us fear to varying degrees, but judging by the view counts on two videos pertaining to these very topics, we want to be. And I think it begins by acknowledging our desire to really show up for our friends who are hurting.
Next, we have to also acknowledge the vulnerability required to do this. In that same video, Brene points out that to really empathize with someone, we have to connect to a part of ourselves that understands pain. That understands fear and loss and grief. This is difficult for all of us, but it is essential if we want to really hold space for our friends who are suffering—even if what they are going through is something that we have no context for. We have to try.
Which brings me to the final piece: releasing the fear of getting it wrong. I remember in the wake of giving birth to my son Josh, I began to isolate myself because anytime I was around others, I could feel them not knowing what to do. It made me feel different and awkward, and while they meant well—they didn’t want to do or say the wrong thing—it amounted to me feeling even less supported. It wasn’t until a conversation with a new acquaintance who eventually became one of my best friends that this shifted. She listened to me fully during a conversation without putting any of her own feelings on me about the situation. No pity, no apologies. She just held space.
I realized that all I needed was to be heard and fully seen in my experience. I didn’t need anyone to solve it because, ultimately, there was nothing to solve. Yet, when we see someone we love struggling, all we want is to solve it. We want to fix it. And that desire, as well-meaning as it is, is a form of fear. Challenging this fear means stepping into the most vulnerable area for all of us: the acceptance that we can’t save our loved ones from pain, we can only stand beside them, we can hold their hand, and we can be brave enough to simply witness, to listen, and to see them in their experience without trying to make it better or different.
Friendship is power for us. Friendship is partners, it is husbands, it is wives, it is community. If we can all push ourselves even more in times when a friend is going through a difficult time, especially now during this moment of crisis, our lives will be better for it, and even more than that, the world will be better for it.