One of the most important wishes for people is to be heard and taken seriously: to be believed and respected. But we tend to hear what people tell us through the filters in our own minds. One filter is the wish for reality to be a certain way: For example, if someone we care about tells us they are sad, we do not want to know their reality. It is worrisome and makes us sad. So we tell them it will pass, cheer up, or distract yourself. We have a hard time sitting with the unhappiness of the people we love. We interpret reality in ways that will make us feel more comfortable. We want to believe it is not that bad.
A second filter is understanding another person’s experience as it would feel to us. When that loved one is sad, we reference our own experiences of being sad and believe that it is the same for that other person. But we don’t really know. And sometimes we don’t really want to know. We don’t want to feel bad, and so we negotiate with reality: It’s not that bad. It will pass. I’ve been there. You just have to….work through it, go for a run, go out with friends.
Each of those “solutions” may be valid and useful, but they are also ways of not being able to deeply listen to another person’s experience. Life is complex, difficult, and uncertain. We don’t like to acknowledge that truth. And we don’t like to sit with another person who is struggling with their own experience of truth. It is hard to stop and listen to what is real for that person.
Instead we veer between over-reacting by listening to our own fears about the situation and under-reacting by trying to get pain relief for our worry. It is difficult to stop all that internal noise and be curious, open to another person’s experience, and patient about allowing space and time. What is it really like for that person? How does it feel to be in the middle of that other life? We do not have a privileged understanding of reality or truth. We have our own filters from our own histories. And, of course, the same is true for the other person. We can only truly be together with another person if we are willing to work at understanding our own inner reality and being genuinely open to theirs.