Years ago a friend of mine was coming to terms with her homosexuality. She’d been raised in a conservative, Christian household and her parents didn’t know she liked girls. This was easy to keep hidden at the time. Now she was in college, where people didn’t give a shit about your sexual orientation. It was liberating to be in a place where she could more truly be herself. But visiting home for the holidays meant that she had to put up an even greater facade. This deepened the divide within herself.
After a few Shiner Bocks on a Friday night I would impart my all too frequent advice, “Just tell them!” I wanted her to be happy, I said, and telling the truth was the solution, no matter how tough. We joked and laughed and then more seriously imagined the absolute worst-case scenarios — getting disowned by your family, waking up with no more tuition payments and finding yourself homeless and broken amongst the crack addicts. To her these things would have been the end of the world. It wasn’t until many years later when the pain was too much to bear, and perhaps with the strength gained with maturity and the independence of having a job, she came out to her family.
I’d like to think I played some positive part in the multi-year process. But I won’t kid myself — the decision was not for me to make. It took my friend years of grappling with her own emotions. What she needed more than a solution was for someone to be there with her and listen. Yet when we’re adamant and passionate and convinced we know the answer to other people’s problems, we scream and yell and insist with all of our hearts. This is a recipe for disappointing yourself and annoying others. After a few dozen situations like this in life, we usually realize the futility of our efforts. But sometimes we need a reminder.
I think it comes down to recognizing boundaries. Boundaries mean that when your friend is making a decision that you don’t agree with, you acknowledge that they’re a different person. It means that they came to this point in their life because they have a myriad of experiences and beliefs that shaped them and brought them right to this moment. Recognize their individuality and right to self-determination. This doesn’t mean you shouldn’t offer advice or remain silent. Share your view and explain why you care, and then listen non-judgmentally to what they have to say. But your life is not theirs. Don’t get tangled up into other people’s emotions.
Being right or wrong is not what matters and knowledge is rarely the solution to our people-problems. There are plenty of unhealthy doctors, crazy psychologists, divorced marriage counselors and even Buddhist monks who can’t control their temper at home — all people who have deep “knowledge” in their fields. Lao Tzu said, “He who acts, spoils, he who grasps, lets slip…The reason it is difficult for people to live in peace is because of too much knowledge.”
Instead of trying so hard to offer up solutions, to convince others — knowing the answer — what’s often more important than being right is simply being there for others.
So how do we approach such a situation?
- Take the time to listen. Whether they’re right or wrong, be there anyways. We’re all trying to figure things out and we will all change in our lives.
- Share your stories, if you have them, but don’t expect people to take your advice.
- Be humble. We’ll all make mistakes. Today your friend has a problem and tomorrow it’ll be your turn. So rather than getting tied to other people’s problems, let it go.