Sometimes the Solution Isn’t to be Nicer

I struggle hard to learn from my mistakes and not repeat them. I strive to do my absolute very best.  I hate regret. I hate it.

I try very hard to word things correctly, and to be aware of what I might have done wrong in the past so I can always do things right in the future. I think hard about people’s feelings. I try to be helpful. I try to be fair. I worry about people’s happiness. I hope I’m being nice enough. I hope that I’m not doing something wrong and upsetting someone. I strive to be the best possible friend. I strive to be the best possible family member.

I used to be slow to return texts and emails– I struggle to be faster.

I used to let friendships lapse a bit when I got into relationships– I’m now very aware of this issue and have sworn my allegiance to my friendships.

I used to let significant others do what they wanted, even when it made me extremely unhappy or suffer– I now attempt to communicate what I need early on. This is very hard for me to do. I sometimes feel awkward communicating what I want without being asked but I know I have to.

I used to be more outspoken– now I struggle to be careful with my wording… to the point that I’d almost rather be silent than say the wrong thing by accident.

I used to believe that being nice (and down to earth and rational) could solve almost any problem– I’m now starting to understand that it cannot.

Sometimes when people surprise me by acting in what I perceive to be a sudden cruel way- possibly by saying something mean to me, or flaking on me, or disappearing on me, or by not accepting me, or telling me that they’re upset with me but hadn’t let me know before, I freak out. I obsess over what I could’ve done differently. I look through my old texts or emails, and think about conversations. I wonder if I worded things incorrectly. I worry that maybe if I could have somehow been even nicer and more thoughtful, things would be better.

But then I think about all the amazing friends and family members who accept me even when I’m busy or don’t return texts immediately or say random things that come to my head without editing them. I think about all the people who I accept and forgive all the time…even when they’re slow to respond to me or jot down brisk silly texts, or seem distracted and don’t act the best they can all the time. I realize that the people in my life are imperfect. The same way I am imperfect. And I’m suddenly starting to realize that the RIGHT people, the amazing ones, will forgive the dumb mistakes or the slow emails or the days between seeing each other when we get busy.

Sometimes being nicer and nicer in an effort to make things work with certain people isn’t going to ever make things work anyway. Perhaps the answer is to have more respect for myself and for the people who forgive my transgressions because they know that I’m doing the best I can. Because they love me for who I am, however imperfect.

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How to Talk to A Grieving Friend in Your Thirties

Sheryl Sandberg wrote a beautiful statement today on Facebook about mourning the death of her husband. He died very suddenly in a tragic accident on a treadmill while they were on vacation in Mexico.

The statement was made after she came out of 30 days of intense mourning for him- a tradition in Judaism known as shiva. Even though it’s been 30 days, I can’t imagine her pain is anything less than fresh and intense, so I’m amazed she put out an incredible brief on Facebook so early on in her grieving process.

Sandberg’s statement is incredibly sad, but it’s also helpful as well as brave. I remember trying to talk to a friend last month whose grandmother had recently died. I didn’t want to upset her and I didn’t know what to say, so I ended up shamefully trying to avoid her until I gathered up my nerve to speak.

Even now, in my thirties, I feel like I never really know the right thing to say to a grieving friend, or relative. But there are definitely better things to say than others.

Sheryl has some great ways to approach (or not approach) this difficult subject. Here are a few:

1. Don’t tell your friend that it’s going to be okay

“A friend of mine with late-stage cancer told me that the worst thing people could say to him was “It is going to be okay.” That voice in his head would scream, How do you know it is going to be okay? Do you not understand that I might die? I learned this past month what he was trying to teach me. Real empathy is sometimes not insisting that it will be okay but acknowledging that it is not.”

2. Ask your friend how he or she is doing today instead of a simple “how are you doing?”

“When I am asked “How are you?” I stop myself from shouting, My husband died a month ago, how do you think I am? When I hear “How are you today?” I realize the person knows that the best I can do right now is to get through each day.”

3. You don’t have to reassure the other person in order to empathize

“When people say to me, “You and your children will find happiness again,” my heart tells me, Yes, I believe that, but I know I will never feel pure joy again. Those who have said, “You will find a new normal, but it will never be as good” comfort me more because they know and speak the truth.”

Other things to say to someone who has lost a loved one include:

– Simply addressing the situation: “I heard your _______ died. I’m so sorry”

– Be genuine: “I’m not sure what to say, but I want you to know I care”

– Offer support: “Is there anything I can do for you?”

– Be willing to just sit and listen with compassion.

Things NOT to say include:

-“I know how you feel” – You can never really know how the person feels.

-“They’re in a better place now.” -You never know if the person you’re talking to believes this.

– “It’s part of God’s plan” – This can cause the person to get angry and actually say something like “What plan? I wasn’t aware of any plan.”

– “You need to get on with your life.” Grief moves at its own pace. This statement is unlikely to help anyone to actually get on with their life.

Thank you for sharing such a vulnerable and devastatingly sad yet extremely positive statement, Sheryl. I’m sorry for your loss and am extremely sad for you and your family.

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My Roommate Talks to Strangers on Subways

When we’re both in our kitchen together, my roommate and I tend to have very in depth, funny, and deep conversations. I’m extremely lucky to have her as a roommate- we were strangers who met through Craigslist and we get along extremely well.

We’ve known each other only three months but we talk about everything from meditation to relationships to street harassment to retirement accounts with an equal degree of ease. Our roommate relationship can only be described as a rare personality click.

The other day she described the conversations she has with random people on the subway. I was surprised to hear this- she doesn’t seem like the sort to have impromptu conversations with strangers on public transportation. She’s a fairly quiet and unassuming girl, tiny and thoughtful- a 29 year old english professor and writer who listens to calming music and chills in her room a lot.

She thinks that people probably open up to her because she enjoys hearing their stories; they may sense her friendliness and feel a green light. It’s true that she always gets me opening up, so I guess her energy works with subway people as well.

I recounted to her that as of late I rarely talk to anyone in transit- even though I travel all the time. I used to have lots of conversations with new people at airports and on planes- in fact that’s actually how I met my ex-boyfriend. But lately I’d been using the old ‘kindle and headphone’ trick to stop people from talking to me before they started. My job involves a ton of talking and lately the last thing I wanted to do on a flight to or from work was to talk.

Sometimes while I'm traveling I'll look up from my Kindle to take a funny photo of fellow travelers, but I've rarely talked to them anymore.

Sometimes while I’m traveling I’ll look up from my Kindle to take a funny photo of fellow travelers, but I’ve rarely talked to them anymore.

But after my roommate told me her subway stories, I began to crave conversation with fellow travelers again. “Just be open,” she said. “They’ll sense it.”

And they did.

Once I felt open to listening again, people began to talk. It was like magic. I turned off my kindle and took off my headphones and I met the LA shuttle driver I talked about in my last post. And on my flight from LA, I met an accountant who used to sell time shares and lived in Cancun. There was a young mom chaperoning a crew of girl scouts on the way back from Dallas, various folk from New Orleans, Vancouver, and Hungary at a recent hostel, and a really cool travel blogger named Jo (Indiana Jo) who apparently travels 9 months out of the year and lived in a cave for awhile.

Both being an open listener and a closed privacy-craver have their pros and cons. I heartily enjoy hearing stories and learning about other places and lives, and travel conversation is a great way to do so. But I haven’t yet talked to strangers on the subway…maybe I’m just not open to that yet.

Sometimes, though, it’s nice to just sit quietly while in transit. Like now, I’m actually sitting and writing this on a bus to Philadelphia, while the man next to me sleeps soundly against the window. We never said hi to each other. By the time I got to my seat he was already tuned out and closed off with his kindle and his headphones.

I understood.

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