“I know what you’re going through.”
No, you don’t.
“This will get better in time.”
Then give me an injection of that shit now … but not too much: I don’t want to overdose and end up dead.
“It’s God’s will.”
How do you know? Are you divine? Sorry, but I can’t see the halo over your head. And if you follow up with “God works in mysterious ways,” that just goes to show you don’t understand it. And if you don’t understand, you can’t help.
“Everything happens for a reason.”
Tell that to the victims of the Holocaust. Or the indigenous people who have been slaughtered around the world. Or a cancer victim. Or the family of an Alzheimer’s patient. Yes, everything happens for a reason, and that “reason” is simple: People can be heartless; life can be cruel. I don’t need to be reminded of that, thank you, especially not in my present state of mind.
Maybe platitudes help some people. I don’t know. I can’t get inside other people’s heads and feel what they’re feeling – which is, really, precisely the point here.
Yes, you may have gone through something similar to what’s happening to me. Maybe your experience was, by some objective standard, “worse” than mine. I can’t imagine what it must have been like to live through the Holocaust, the Inquisition, the purges conducted throughout history in the name of power, gold, religious or racial “purity,” egoism. I don’t know what it’s like to lose a loved one to war, or to an accident involving a drunken driver. All I know is what I feel right now.
And you don’t. You just don’t.
I could tell you, philosophically speaking, that no two people go through exactly the same experiences, and that no two people react the same way, because even though we’re all human, we’re not cookie-cutter automatons with the same perceptions, emotional triggers, etc., etc. We’re all unique combinations of DNA, neurons, protoplasm and whatever else makes us … individuals.
But that’s head knowledge. It’s only good so far as it goes – which isn’t very far when it comes to personal pain (and all pain is, in the end, deeply personal). It doesn’t really matter to me when I’m in the midst of it. What matters is what I feel, and no matter how much you and I might have in common, no matter how precisely I communicate, you can’t possibly feel exactly what I’m feeling in this present moment. You can’t even know what I’m feeling. In the midst of great pain, definitions are meaningless.
And that’s why platitudes don’t work. They don’t help. Because they represent a presumption that you know what I’m feeling – that you can define it and that you somehow understand “how this works.” You don’t. I don’t even understand how it works, and I’m going through it. What you may (or may not) understand is what you went through, and I don’t presume to understand that. Because I’m not you.
No matter how close we may be, I’m not inside your mind. I’m not experiencing your pain. The only pain I can feel is what’s inside me, even if I’m in pain over your situation, that’s still my pain, not yours.
“We are all alone, born alone, die alone, and — in spite of True Romance magazines — we shall all someday look back on our lives and see that, in spite of our company, we were alone the whole way. I do not say lonely — at least, not all the time — but essentially, and finally, alone.” — Hunter S. Thompson
He was right. We all experience our emotions – fear, pain, hope, joy – alone. I can express them to you, but you cannot truly share them. You can experience your own feelings called “fear” or “pain” or “hope” or “joy,” but you cannot feel mine the way I feel them. Because you are not me.
Maybe people use platitudes because they want to help. Or because they don’t want to feel helpless. Maybe your suffering is in some way inconvenient to them, or perhaps they feel threatened by it. Or maybe the realization that we are all, at the end of the day, truly alone in the feelings we experience is just too scary to acknowledge. The realization that I’m all alone is, indeed, one of the most frightening things I’ve ever faced.
I’m not wallowing in this. I’m forcing myself to face up to it, so I can figure out how to deal with it. I’m not there yet; I’m a long way from it, and I’m not sure whether I’ll ever get there. But you don’t have a clue what it is to feel these things the way I feel them. You just don’t.
So please acknowledge that. Don’t give me platitudes or pat answers. Don’t say you know how I’m feeling, because you don’t. Don’t try to reassure me. Recognize that there might not be a damned thing you can do to help me or improve my situation; that it’s all on me. Believe me, I there’s a part of me that wishes you could help, because I sure could use it. But no one can help me feel – and even if they could, I wouldn’t wish some of the feelings I’ve endured on the worst of my enemies (thankfully, I don’t have too many of those).
The best thing you can do for me may be the most difficult: Put away the platitudes and have the courage to acknowledge my aloneness – even if it forces you to acknowledge your own. That’s the only way any sort of understanding between us can begin.