Do not assume you know how I am feeling.
Some synonyms for the word assume are: guess, speculate, presume, estimate, suspect, conclude. I would personally add the word ‘judge’ to the list.
Listening is an art. I’ve known that for years and even though I have often failed it is still my desire to do it better.
I made a series of paintings called States of Listening.
This is an extract from what I wrote about them at the time:
‘In conversations between people the listening part is often done in a distracted way. We the listener often do not really hear what is said, because in our head we might be preoccupied with planning what we are going to say, or even with what we are having for dinner. External distractions can also occupy part of our attention. The result is we might hear the other’s words, but not the deeper meaning and so experience the conversation as just so much white noise. So listening is done at different rates and there are punctuated layers to listening.’
Since Alberto, my husband of 54 years died in January 2018 I’ve had many expressions of condolences and love, I’ve always believed that people are mostly fundamentally kind, and they have been.
I used to think that there was a cultural difficulty in expressing sorrow at a death and sympathy for the bereaved and maybe there is, however I think the difficulty is more than that. There is an impatience to listening. If we stop our own internal chatter long enough to listen to another person express how they are really feeling, it seems as if we might hear something we do not want to hear. Perhaps we are afraid that we are not up to helping with the sort of pain and sadness that is being described, perhaps we don’t want to be drawn in to their sadness. Sadness can be contagious and who really wants to be sad?
The response to the fear of being drawn in seems to be to quickly offer what is a shared experience, to tell your own story.
Think about it, if you fall down and scrape your knee, does someone telling you they did the same thing a week, a month, a year ago stop your knee from hurting? Does your knee stop hurting? Do you feel better at that moment knowing someone hurt their knee sometime in the past? Or does that just compound the pain because now you have to show courage that you don’t feel and tell yourself, ‘now I know that, my knee isn’t hurting as much as it is’, or do you feel guilt that you weren’t there when they fell down, weren’t there to help pick them up?
To date the best condolences I’ve received are the simple expressions of love or straight forward telling of personal stories about Alberto. I’ve had people really, really listen. And I’m so grateful for that.
The worst are probably from those who only see from outside but assume they know what our lives were like.
Even without bereavement we all engage in this to some degree, I mean engage in assumptions. We see the externals of other people’s lives. Lives that may look the idyll or at least something we consider close to it, but there is an old adage for that; walk a mile in another’s shoes.
Some expressions of condolences have left me with my jaw dropped, or more colloquially, gob-smacked. It is hard to deal with those for I know that they are delivered with the best of intentions.
A youngish assistant Bank Manager started off OK with straight forward condolences but then went and ruined it by being as obsequious as only Rigsby (Leonard Rossiter) could be in the Comedy Rising Damp. I know it was done with the best of intentions, it felt like it came straight out of Bank Management training school and half-way through in my head I was saying ‘shut the f**k up!
Steam was let off with that particular episode as we left the bank in silence when son #2 who was accompanying me said ‘Why didn’t he just ‘shut the f**k’ up! I laughed because it totally echoed the words that had been in my head. That sequence will be added to family tales.
The other difficult one was from someone I had a slight acquaintance with. This lady knew Alberto had suffered with Alzheimer’s and knew I’d been his carer. I know she has had tough times and I know she most certainly wouldn’t have wanted to cause any kind of hurt or extra sadness. In fact she wasn’t so far off how I thought I would feel after the trauma of seeing Alberto deteriorate over the previous four years, but thinking you know how you will feel and feeling how you feel are two different things. Firstly, she mentioned sad times and offered condolences which was fine but then I was floored to hear her say ‘I expect you’ve finished grieving’. I replied, no I haven’t.
We cannot know what another is experiencing, we can guess, speculate, presume, estimate, suspect, conclude, assume, but we cannot know.
We can listen, really listen and if we cannot do that well enough, if we feel the need to insert our own story prematurely, then I like to remind myself of the Wittgenstein quote I used in my long ago University Thesis: “Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent.”
States of Listening #1 – Acrylic on canvas – 122 x 153 cm – Linda Sgoluppi
States of Listening #1 – Detail – Acrylic on canvas – 122 x 153 cm – Linda Sgoluppi
States of Listening #3 – Acrylic on canvas – 122 x 153 cm – Linda Sgoluppi
States of Listening #3 – Detail – Acrylic on canvas – 122 x 153 cm – Linda Sgoluppi