I’m trying to make a difficult decision, lying awake for hours at night. But as I share my concern with close friends, some calm begins to return.
Long ago this became my way of coping when troubles arose, but it calls for a measure of self-disclosure, a sharing of vulnerabilities, which I know is hard for some.
A while ago an old friend began phoning more often than usual. Her son was divorcing, and her distress about the breakup of his family had brought her low. She had been my frequent talking partner when angst was in my life, so now it was my turn to listen.
My husband and I had lived through a similar time, when a child’s divorce became part of the air we breathed, often the last thing we talked about at night and the first upon waking. But when I say we talked about it, that’s not quite true. I talked, he listened. For longer conversations, I turned to my friend.
One evening, overhearing us on the phone, Len gently berated me, urging me to think and talk less about the plight of our loved ones. He saw it as a way of quieting my concerns. I did not argue with him but simply ignored his advice, as he knew I would.
Len grew up in a home where feelings, even if recognized, were not talked about. In my childhood home, emotion was welcome grist for the mill. Not surprisingly, we both grew up having adopted the ways we learned as children. He was able to put troubles out of mind and metaphorically go fishing. Not me.
We knew this about each other. Over time, and with deliberate effort, talk came more easily for us, but we also learned to honor our differences. I probed less to unearth the feelings behind his moods, and he sought less to divert or dampen my need to talk when I was upset. When we were not in sync for conversation, a comforting touch or a loving embrace allowed us to communicate without words. Today my friends, those who talk and those who mostly listen, fill the void.
A colleague, who is also a close friend listens well, offering comfort when things go amiss in my life or when I’m faced with a challenging decision. She has suffered major losses and faced difficult choices, but she rarely discloses her most personal thoughts. Although I know she trusts me, she keeps her feelings hidden beneath an exterior of cheerful banter. She willingly talks of her professional life and the problems she is working to solve for her clients, but when her friends inquire about her well-being, she just gives a few reassuring words, then artfully changes the subject. Efforts to thwart this move inevitably fail.
I find this worrisome. Did her family meet distress with silence, and she now follows the avoidance pattern of her early years? I try to respect the line she has drawn. But I’m sad for her and wonder when a self-imposed barrier becomes a cage, even a prison.
Does our personal past inform our professional present? Lawyers, by the very nature of their work, hear from clients when they are most vulnerable. They usually respect personal boundaries, appropriately so. But over the years I’ve grown less guarded. On occasion I step cautiously into that protected space of professional reserve and share with a client a story of a similar experience to theirs, or one from which I learned something important. Lightning does not strike. My status is not compromised. A sweet connection is made.
For years I’ve kept a wonderful Edward Koren cartoon on my desk. It shows two couples enjoying a companionable evening in the living room of one of them. Behind the host couple, who are seated on their couch, stands a huge hairy monster. “We deal with it by talking about it” reads the caption.
I do too, and I count myself lucky to know others for whom demons are diminished by talk, even if sometimes they just listen.