The One Where I Kept My Mouth Shut

Dee attended a pool party Saturday. It was the birthday celebration of two little school friends who she has known since kindergarten. They are twins. I have gotten to know their mother a bit over time and when she let me know last week that she was going to be flying to Ontario on an early flight the next day because her father is in the last stage of cancer, I naturally volunteered to help out in any way she needed. I’ve been there. I know. I offered. It’s simple because there isn’t much to think about really.

While the kids were swimming under the supervision of the twin’s dad, two lifeguards and a couple of other parents who wanted to help out as well, I sliced hotdog buns. At some point, things were set up enough to allow the conversation to flow past panicked preparation to topics of the day. Twins’ Mom related her frazzled shopping adventures of the previous couple of days and remarked that at one point she became irrationally angry with a cashier who was more interested in socializing with her customers than checking them out. She realized that it was just the stressful nature of getting ready for her daughters’ party while planning to leave to be with her parents and siblings that was making her react as she did but knowing isn’t always enough to quell feelings in the moment. She apparently mentioned it to her primary care provider not long after it happened because she went on to say,

“I was told that I reacted that way because I had started the grieving process and that if it got worse, I should come back in.”

There are so many layers of myth in that one statement that I almost couldn’t wrap my own thoughts up quickly enough to silence myself. Two years ago, okay maybe even last year, if someone had said that, I would have been all over it. Instead I just smiled and said,

“You’re normal.”

Because that is one of my stock answers where upheaval, tragedy, adversity and death are concerned.

The others?

“I’m sorry.”

“It’s going to be okay.”

Not verbatim, of course. I flush them out with descriptors and if I am feeling particularly reckless and under the influence of empathy, I might share a personal story with as little advice or judgement as possible.

Why?

Because I know now that all people want is to be heard. Even when they ask for advice specifically, they are not looking for anything more than someone to hear, echo and tell them that they are normal and all will eventually work out. And you know what? For most people, everything will be okay – albeit different. Very few of us lack the resiliency to right ourselves after life capsizes our boats or destiny re-charts our direction without regard to our wants.

I know it’s hard to believe. Society these days is such a nanny, telling us that there is a therapy, self-help group or pill for everything. Some of us forget, in the face of unrelenting peer pressure, that human beings are designed to overcome emotional bumps, bruises and breaks because if we hadn’t been Darwinian law would have taken care of us long, long ago.

We are victims of our ability to be introspective and logically analytic, I guess. If we’d remained merely animals, we wouldn’t be able to second guess ourselves and we’d take crisis as it came and for what it was, reminding ourselves that we were hardly unique and that life goes on even if it sucks sometimes. We are nothing special after all, that bad times should pass over our house for those more deserving.

So, I am sorry you’re normal, but in spite of that, everything is going to be okay. Really.

8 thoughts on “The One Where I Kept My Mouth Shut

  1. i always struggle with what to say, usually cracking wise (and often not too well at that, even). i think the “you’re normal” is definitely going to be added to the repertoire, thank you. well done piece.

  2. well said. i’m learning this, and think the ‘you’re normal’ response is pretty brilliant. i have to fight the urge to offer advice, suggestions, opinions… a good lesson here.

  3. Because I know now that all people want is to be heard. Even when they ask for advice specifically, they are not looking for anything more than someone to hear, echo and tell them that they are normal and all will eventually work out.

    And this, of course, explains why people get all bent out of shape on the board when they ask for people’s opinions — and get them!

    1. Yeah, and it’s amazing to me that people two and three years out still don’t get that. They say “but you asked for opinions!” or that it is a kindness to do so. Giving advice is really all about the ego of the person who is spouting off and nothing to do with the person being spouted at. The mean part of me enjoys the indignation of the busy bodies when they are slammed by the asker and others. I want to ask them “what did you think would happen? that you’d be hailed as some kind of goddess come to enlighten her people?” The truth isn’t that people should be doused with cold water or that cold hard facts are best. Reality checking is not what people want. They want to be validated and they want comfort. Most people get more than enough boot-strap advice and criticism in real time to go looking for it online from strangers.

  4. It’s interesting to hear pat, standard platitudes in a time of crisis. I’ve never been fond of them myself, either giving or receiving, but sometimes the silence of saying nothing is worse.

    It’s a tightrope in a way. But I can’t help recognizing I’ve got a full stable of them anyway.

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