I recently pressed pause on a long-standing friendship. It was precipitated by a singular event, but in the clarity of hindsight it was a long time coming. I don’t want to retread the history of the relationship – I’ve spent a long time thinking about it over the last many weeks away from this friend. In any case, the relevant part of this discussion is that aforementioned singular event.
In a nutshell, this friend was going through a very challenging moment in their life, and they were focused on the worst possible outcome. For weeks, all of my conversations with them centered around this possible awful future, and they spoke as if it were a foregone conclusion. As a fellow human being, I’m intimately acquainted with the temptation to catastrophize. I think part of it is that by parsing an undesired and uncertain outcome, we feel that we are somehow controlling it, and this rumination momentarily provides a brief relief. But in the end, when we spend our their energy thinking about potential catastrophe, we are suffering in the present about something in the future. If the catastrophe comes to pass, in effect we’ll actually be enduring the pain twice – once in anticipation, and once when it happens. And if the catastrophe is avoided, well, then, we’ve gone through unnecessary pain regardless.
I expressed this over and over to my friend, with the assumption that they would eventually understand my perspective, and that they would intuit my desire for them to avoid unnecessary suffering. I was met with pushback and the insistence that they had their own way of approaching life, and that’s what they were going to stick to it. And so the conversations about their fear about an undetermined horrible future continued.
It weighed on me, and because it was near the forefront of my mind, I decided to mention it (in passing and anonymously) in a previous blog post, in relation to their fear of the future. Though it was absolutely not my intent, this action (for various reasons that I won’t get into here) deeply upset and angered my friend, and I was, for days, on the receiving end of a a series of late-night texts and emails, full of angry and hurtful words. Despite my continued apologies for this unintentional offense, the hostile and cutting words continued. And something in me snapped, and I told them that it would be better for me to cut off contact for a while.
I’m not writing this because I want to air any personal grievances, and I’m fully aware that a public discussion is a small part of what induced their anger in the first place. But it’s a risk I’m willing to take because it was such a powerful teachable moment for me.
There were clear missteps on my part at several points. The primary one involves my assumption that if I presented a reasonable point of view that might save them some suffering, my friend would of course adopt it. I thought I was helping, but it wasn’t the kind of help that they actually needed at the time. What I was hearing was an obsession with worst possible outcomes. But perhaps what they were trying to do, in retrospect, was spitting the bile of fear out of their system by constantly talking about the most disastrous future. What I heard as compulsive catastrophizing may have instead been an attempt to expunge fear. In effect, what I was offering them was sound advice, but not advice that was meeting them where they needed to be met. They were trying to face a challenge in one way, and I was asking them to change their thinking without fully understanding their motivations and perspectives.
My takeaway is twofold. First – and this is one so fundamental that I feel sheepish in admitting that I seem to forget it all the time: you cannot change anyone else’s mind. Second: reasoning, no matter how sound, can be unhelpful if it doesn’t fit the task at hand, or if I don’t fully comprehend the task at hand, or if it’s offered at the wrong time.
But it goes further. As much as I depend on my own sense of compassion to guide me through the world, I also rely on my beliefs in what I perceive to be the truth. In my mind, ruminating on an unknown, terrible future is tantamount to creating one’s own suffering. I contend that life throws enough challenges our way, and that we shouldn’t needlessly add pain.
But maybe by adopting this position, I’ve closed myself to different ways of understanding. Perhaps there is merit in taking a deep dive into suffering. Perhaps we as a society – and I as an individual – demonize fear and suffering, and there is something to be learned in the darkest of our thoughts. Perhaps suffering can teach us about ourselves, even if we are the ones creating it for ourselves. Or perhaps my friend simply needed to vent, over and over, as a way of shedding light on their fear.
Challenges to one’s belief system are, well…a challenge. And it’s a hard pill to swallow when we mean well, and come armed with compassion and reason, but fail to improve a situation. In this particular situation, I still don’t think that my belief about self-created suffering is entirely wrong, but rather it wasn’t necessarily the most helpful concept in that particular circumstance. Even more, perhaps it wasn’t pertinent to my friend’s situation at all. I was simply insistent on a concept I thought might be helpful, and it just wasn’t.