Too often in our zeal to share with others, especially those who are suffering, the truths we have learned, we are led us to miss the more basic needs of those around us. As an example, I regularly attend a group that meets to discuss spirituality in our lives. Recently, a fellow member of the group discussed his live-in mother-in-law. She is in her eighties, widowed from a man who abused alcohol, and is in fading health. He described how he had come home late from work and, seeing her sitting up in the living room, tried to make small talk with her. She snapped at him. He recounted that she complained to him that she had medical tests the next day and that she didn’t want to go. When he suggested he get his wife (her daughter) to discuss it with her, she begged off. When he pressed further she barked at him stating that she had all sorts of problems, but that she knew her children were busy with their own problems. When he tried to explain that everyone has their own “pile of problems” to deal with, she flashed with anger, spun on him and stated, “I’m in my eighties, I’ve been through enough…. I shouldn’t have a pile of them.”
While we all discussed the truth of the statement that we all have a our own “pile of problems” (the language in our group was much cruder) we all eventually agreed on a more basic and simpler truth: We all do have a “pile of problems,” but our real problem is not any one of these. Our deeper underlying problem is simply the belief that we shouldn’t have a pile of problems – a truth reflected in the Buddhist story describing how we all have “83” problems (not literally, but you get the point). It is our belief that we shouldn’t have any of these problems, that our lives should be a long parade of joys, that makes us truly unhappy (the 84th problem). It is this last, “84th problem,” that is the real root of our suffering.
My friend felt this was an important truth, one that could certainly help his mother-in-law. With little warning he scribbled down the idea and announced he was heading home to tell her about it. We tried to slow him down but he would have none of it. He was certain that if she could only be made to see that her suffering came not from her problems, but from her sense that she should be different from others and thus problem free, then she would be happy.
Driving home after our get-together I was unsettled. I deeply believe the truth of the principle we had discussed and I deeply feel that if my friends mother-in-law saw this truth she could find peace. But I also feared how the night would might go. Armed with his new-found truth he’d lecture his mother-in-law. He’d explain to her why she was wrong to feel the way she felt, and tell her she ought to feel differently. Likely she’d respond like most do when faced with this sort of “help.”
I was unsettled not only because I doubted his mother-in-law would embrace this new way, but because I recognized the same approach in myself. How often have I, excited by tried to “fix” someone in my life who was in pain. How often have I tried to correct the error of thought I saw in them and that led them to their grief. How often have I tried to impose my self on them in an effort to change them to be more like me.
How often have I done all these things and thus ignored that what I’m addressing is a person. In this case, not just a person, but an old person, a sick person, a scared whose feeling alone.
How often have I forgotten that what needs to be done first and foremost is to see them as a person, and as a sad and suffering person they usually want one thing: for someone to listen. Sure, I can try to teach them to see things differently, and maybe (shockingly) I may even be right, but how can I expect them to listen to me when I haven’t even bothered to listen to them.
I think that much, not all but much, of a person’s suffering is actually softened not be the wisdom of the ages, but by having another person actually look them in the face, see them as a person, and listen.
Maybe later, they’ll listen to you.