I've nearly called a suicide prevention hotline multiple times. This isn't a cry for help, though in some ways perhaps it is. It's really a struggle to get out how I feel when I'm around other people. There are many reasons for this. The first is that whenever anyone asks the question, "how are you?" most of us respond with hardly a second thought. I try to be intentional about how I live, including the words that I choose to say, but it's not always easy. Also, sometimes I'm not sure that the meanings I've attached to some words have the same meanings that others have placed on them. Could the response "I'm alright" be interpreted as someone having no complaints, with the interpretation that nothing is really wrong right now, but rather everything is right or all of life is right? It's understandable how so few words can be interpreted in so many ways. Language is a complex issue and yet something like 40% of our communication is done verbally.
A similar reason for why it's often difficult for us to share how we're feeling involves the uncomfortableness in sharing how we're truly feeling. I recently read somewhere that it's much easier to say "yes" than "no" when asked to do something because a no requires an explanation. Agreeing to do something by answering "yes" to a request is sometimes easier because it doesn't require us to explain why we would or would not like to do something. Similarly, when someone asks us how we are it is much simpler to just respond with a quick response with little to no real thought.
Telling someone that you're not doing very well may put both the asker and the responder in an awkward position. First of all, the asker may regret having asked the question in the first place, thinking something to the effect of, "I was just asking how you are to be polite, I'm not exactly interested in your life story." These exact words may not be going through the asker's mind but I think that somewhere along the line society has taught us that most of the time when we ask someone how they are doing, it is mostly out of common courtesy and not from a place of genuine concern. An exception to this comes when we find ourselves talking with a close friend or family member with whom we feel we can place our trust. Having someone who will empathize (not sympathize) with us can be crucial in moments of deep despair.
As I mentioned before, it is not only the asker who may feel uncomfortable with an uncommon answer. The responder, who desires to be truthful on the one hand and not a burden on the other, may find it challenging to find the middle ground between these two responses. Someone who is feeling less than "well" may be hesitant to share that with others with the fear that (s)he may be misunderstood. Perhaps the person with whom (s)he shares may blow the situation out of proportion. I must admit here though that there are many people in this world who genuinely care for others and I am so thankful for these people. Also, I know that sometimes we may just feel that we don't have time to sit with someone and discuss how their every feeling. However, when you find yourself falling into that second category I challenge you to remind yourself of a time when you were feeling distraught and felt as if you had no one with whom you could speak. How much of a difference would it have made to you to have someone just sit with you and listen for a minute? Perhaps you didn't even know how to express how you were feeling, but just having someone sitting there in the silence with you would make all the difference.
So sometimes we may not say anything because we don't want to burden others. Similarly, we may choose not to just sit and be with someone simply because we feel ill-equipped. It is not that we aren't willing to sit with the hurting person, we've just convinced ourselves that nothing we can do or say will help. It could be true that nothing we say will help a person to snap out of his/her downward cycle but what is the alternative? Sitting in silence with someone could save a life. I would like to make an important point that it is important to ask the person what you might do to help and possibly suggest if (s)he would like you to sit with him/her. Sometimes people may just need to be alone with their thoughts for a time. Other times people will welcome a companion as they wrestle through seemingly unexplainable thoughts and/or feelings. The important thing is to ask what is best appropriate at that time.
So what do we do with all of this? I think the answer is twofold: First, when asking people how they are we must really mean it and be willing to accept the response. Second, when people ask us how we are, we must be willing to state the truth and accept empathy from others. We can go on thinking that people are against us and that we are in this alone, but that will only isolate us further. If we speak truthfully about our feelings and let others into our lives, we may be surprised at the amount that people really care about us.
Through all of this there is one additional point that I would like to make: choosing empathic responses is choosing to feel with someone, while choosing sympathetic responses is choosing to feel for someone. When someone around us is experiencing a difficult time it is immeasurably more helpful to figure out how to feel alongside that individual than it is to feel sorry for him/her. Perhaps we move to showing sympathy more often because it is so much easier. However, if we can learn to be more empathic, I strongly feel that we will be better equipped to build deeper and lasting relationships.
Finally, I just want to reference my initial sentence before I end this post. Though I have recently been in a rather dark place I have no intention of ending my own life. It is not that I want to kill myself, but rather I want to live my life alive. I've been pretty isolated lately which leaves me to my own thoughts, which can get pretty dark. However, I have hope that life will go on and that I'm going to make it. I know that life will never really be rainbows and butterflies and it's foolishness to believe that the happy moments are the only ones that matter. At any rate, I will go on living and look forward to continuing to share this life with you all and growing ever closer to you.