“So how great are you at handling weird shit?”
The instant message box popped up from an acquaintance. We barely knew each other beyond our sparse interactions online. Apparently there was no else online to talk to.
With weak reassurance from me, he dropped the bombshell.
There was no right way to react, he admitted. There was also nothing in particular he was looking to hear. Still, I felt more impotent with each response I gave.
Empathy led to sarcasm. Additional questions led to evasion. Expressing uncertainty about how I was reacting led to silence. I was sure I was making things worse.
He had some whiskey and left the keyboard for awhile. When he came back, the subject was over. He thanked me for listening. “I don’t know how I’m supposed to feel,” he finally said.
I chalked up my incompetence to my barely knowing him. Surely if I knew him better, I’d know exactly which conversation buttons to hit to help him cope. But I didn’t know him at all. This was the first time someone who I barely knew confided in me something life-changing.
We learn a lot of things about how to react to raw vulnerability in people we don’t know. We have our stock phrases and tricks about how to validate feelings. “This must be hard for you.” “I’m sorry.” “Take all the time you need. “This is not your fault.” “A lot of people go through this.” “Your reaction is normal.”
What I didn’t learn until now is sometimes nothing–absolutely nothing–works. Sometimes it’s the moment, sometimes it’s the person, sometimes it’s both. And so you have silences, and missteps, and too many apologies. Out of desperation, you say inappropriate things like, “I’m pretty sure I didn’t do anything to make it better, but I hope I didn’t make it worse either.”
You may make it worse.
But maybe the game is rigged. Maybe every door to making things better is locked. Maybe I’m not the person with the key. Maybe there’s nowhere to stand but in the hallway, offering nothing for now but a bit of body warmth.
Note: I asked for (and received) consent to write this.