This will be one that makes no sense to some but a ton of sense to others. Please sort yourselves accordingly.
I included the above drawing in my Stream of Consciousness post but realized I have more I need to say about it. One way I could describe my life is as a constant struggle between trying to look reasonably together and trying to be honest about the struggles I live every day. Generally, I lean to the side of being transparent about my issues, because I firmly believe 1)God is glorified when working through our weaknesses, 2)other people with similar or related difficulties might be encouraged to hear they are not alone and there is hope. It is, in the end, all a battle for hope.
But the decision between transparency and keeping up appearances is not simple. One issue is Too Much Information. That’s a pitfall some of us would do well to avoid. Not everyone can handle knowing what we carry, and while a part of me wants to say, “Well then, screw ’em,” that may not be my most godly impulse. I suspect. I could be wrong.* Whether “can’t handle it” means knowing would cause them harm (my children don’t need to know everything) or knowing would cause them to lose respect and make our relationship not work, this question requires discernment on my part.**
That’s on their end.
My end, that’s another question.
People will say, “Don’t keep your problems to yourself! Share them! Give others a chance to help!” There will be exclamation points behind each of these exhortations, and they sound great. I know I’ve said them myself, likely with hand gestures for added emphasis.
Now go back up and read that Story People above.
If you’re walking on a tightrope, that’s, you know, tricky. You might be good at it by now, but even when it’s your normal, it can still be precarious. Or it might be your normal but it feels life-threatening. Every. Single. Time. No net. Stupid, tiny little wire. Why do I have to be up here?
Advice from the ground from non-tight rope walkers often is, at best, distracting. At best.
I half-joke about being the most dysfunctional functional person I know. By that I mean I deal with the most internal garbage while still managing to function, mas o menos, and do some good in the world. I’m not, of course. Some people deal with inner challenges that, by comparison, make mine look miniscule. For our analogy, their rope is 700 meters higher, the wind is a gale, and the rope is waxed. I’m not competing; that’s just the truth. I have people I love desperately who have been hospitalized, repeatedly, because staying on that rope is such a bitch.
Now if you say, “I can’t imagine being hospitalized for mental health issues,” then let me play that back for you:
You. Cannot imagine. Being hospitalized for mental health issues.
I’m not shaming or scolding you. I’m glad for you. Perhaps a touch jealous, but that’s my issue.
No, I’m discussing why it’s hard to have people shout advice from the ground. Sometimes it’s well-meant, with a good heart. Sometimes it’s judgmental and holier-than-thou. That, by the way, is in the ear of the beholder more than in the original intent. I’m sorry if that doesn’t seem fair, but the issue here is impact. If you helpfully shout and cause someone to glance down and lose their balance…well…there was a kid’s song we often quote:
“Some kind of help is the kind of help/That helping’s all about;
Some kind of help is the kind of help/We all can do without.”
Here’s a quick, first-person-from-the-tightrope perspective. I’m going to try to split the difference between being open and not saying more than I should.
Sometimes the things I do to keep me sane and balanced backfire. Sometimes the (figurative, not literal) medicine turns on me. That’s always a bummer.
Do I tell people? Do I say, “Hey, this is supposed to be helping me but it’s hurting me instead and I’m having really negative, self-destructive thoughts right now in the midst of what should be this really good thing?”
I don’t want to add their well-intentioned “help” to what is already a pretty damned difficult situation for me. In that moment, I’m doing my bloody best to stay on the frigging, suddenly-greased tightrope, and I can’t add anything to that challenge.
So then I just seem grumpy. Not very social. Oh, well.
I hope that wasn’t too vague to be useful, but here are my applications:
- If you’re on the tightrope, choose as wisely as you can whom you tell. Yes, the principle still applies that staying silent about our struggle is not life-giving, but help that hurts is the last thing we need. I have a lot of people whom I wish could understand, because I’d like them to help…but they can’t, and they don’t. Bummer. But the times when I’ve gone against that instinct and tried, the bummer was much bigger. Huge.
2. You know that saying, “Everyone is fighting a battle you know nothing about. Be kind. Always.” This. It means this. “But if they’re fighting a battle, they should tell me!” No. They should tell you if it helps them. It’s their battle. Love means you want to do whatever you can to help, including not be told and show all the kindness you can, anyway.
3. Here’s the tough part. No one thinks they are the person giving the “helpful comments from the ground.” But a bunch of somebodies are. So do the math.
Someone in my life, when upset, does not want to hear kind words of encouragement. Those make this person furious. It happens the thing I’m really good at is…you guessed it. Words of encouragement. Outstanding, if I say so myself. So even this principle of “Be Kind. Always” is subordinate to loving people in whatever way helps them stay up on the rope.
Trying my best to be kind and encouraging was making this person’s balancing act worse. Harder. So what to do?
Insist that this is the right way to help because I’m good at it? Keep at it because it should help?
Shut the [expletive] up and simply indicate I’m there for support but silently. Yes. That one.
Love this. One of the things this says is, do you want to help me in the way that helps me or the way that helps you? Do you want me to add to the challenge of staying on this rope by juggling your feelings and good intentions, too?
Here’s a crazy thought: If you don’t get why someone behaves in that way, pray first (if you do that) and ask for compassion and empathy. Ask for the ability to help in a way that helps. Then–and only then***–inquire if there is a way you can help or support. Asking if you can support comes across very differently than chiming in with advice.
Two more things, figuring that if you’ve read this far it might be helping and the people who didn’t, that’s kind of irrelevant.
You may have the gut response, especially as a believer in God, that this whole tightrope analogy fails because, in Jesus, people don’t have to stay up on the tightrope. This may all sound a little defeatist. I believe in God’s power, in prayer, and in healing. I also suspect someone struggling with mental health or serious emotional issues will find this attitude exactly what they want to avoid. When people just know they can help, they easily become deaf to what is actually being communicated. I’m not going to resolve that for you, I merely ask you to take it as a serious precaution. People have been helped to death before, and by those with the best of intentions.
Finally, if you’re walking the tightrope, I’m sorry. Not in a pitying way, but Me, too, and I wish we didn’t have to. I appreciate your courage. I appreciate your hidden smirk when people throw up that oh-so-helpful advice from the ground, which means, if I’m translating smirk correctly “You’d be impressed if you had any idea how damned hard this is!” I appreciate that you’re choosing to hang in there another day and, miraculously, keeping a sense of humor about it.
I appreciate you.
You’re doing a great job. Yes, you are. You’re still here? You’re doing a great job.
And you’re braver than we know. Of that, I’m certain.
*No, I’m probably right.
**I even ask this question when writing my blog…except at 4AM, when all judgment goes out the window.
***If you don’t pray, I guess I would suggest being mindful of the person and trying to distinguish between what would make you feel good in helping them versus what could be good for them (might be the same, might not). Heck, if you do pray I’d still suggest this.
8 thoughts on “Tightrope Walking”
I love this one, Mike ~
Like you, I have been on both sides of this scenario ~ the tightwire walker, and the tone-deaf advice-giver thinking solutions are only so simple. Or wanting to believe I could be the one with the answers, who knew how to help.
I appreciate the incisiveness with which you distinguish between helpful help, and that which is not. I also appreciate the sensitivity with which you discuss real battles many of us fight ~ some, sporadically, and others every day.
Thank you for seeing the win and the courage in still being here.
Thanks, dear friend. Yeah, I wish I could go back in time to some of the people whose pain and anger I tried to “solve” and seek forgiveness, then listen better. Trying to learn and live in the here and now.
Still being here is the crucial win, without which we will get none of the others on our journey. It certainly looks like courage to me. Love you, Sister.
Well written article, Mike. I get the Andreas and I have been there too. At my church many of us practise listening without response unless asked for. That is very difficult and is also very helpful, a tightrope of its own. Thank you for sharing!
Sherry, I like the idea of listening without response as a discicpline. When the person knows what you’re doing and that they can speak safely without the danger of being lectured/fixed/’splained, I would imagine it must really free them up.
We’ve got several of the StoryPeople books and even a couple of prints. He’s a master of saying a lot in 18 words.
Thanks for the encouragement!
Thank you! Again, thank you. I often joke that I can hear circus music playing in the background of my life. I get lots of strange looks for that one. But some people laugh with me.
Figuring out how much work it all is helps me not feel guilty for being so tired all the time. It just is. And it’s ok.
Hang in there friend, and listen for the circus music. 😉
It just is.
I really like the image/impression of circus music as life soundtrack. That’s seriously great. I might have to borrow that. With footnote, of course. 🙂
Much love and I hope it’s a blessed Christmas, Friend!
Just read this one Mike. I really like the tightrope analogy. I’ve felt my bipolar depression as more of the cliff in the near distance, off of which I will inevitably fall. But it’s all good!
I never share about my illness in my professional life. Despite the fact that the public schools populate the psychiatric hospitals at a rate second only to the nursing profession, I would never trust other teachers or administration. All you have to do is give ear to any teacher’s lounge for five minutes to understand that you will be eaten alive for showing weakness.
What’s more sad and hurtful to me, however, is how uncomfortable it’s been to share at church. I made the decision some years ago to be open , partly because I trusted folks and partly because I wasn’t hiding much anyway. I’ve mostly gotten blank stares or uh huhs. I would like to be engaged, asked questions, told of their struggles.
Oh well. Your mom is right. They just don’t get it. I sometimes wish I could have their brain for five minutes just to see the extent of the difference in our realities.
Ah, V, I am on your side and behind you one hundred percent. All I can do is try to change the church culture where I am, try to help people see that openness and vulnerability and honesty reveal God’s grace in our lives. I don’t know if we can impact the church more widely, but I hope we can. I have to believe we can. I have to stay hopeful.
I think, speaking bluntly, that people are threatened when they see weakness. It’s weird, like a combination of defensiveness that they don’t want their own weaknesses revealed with a revulsion that they don’t like other people to have weaknesses. Like we’re we’re weirdly both threatened and prideful in the face of others’ shortcomings. Clearly this is not everyone, but I see it so often.
As I’ve told you before, it’s hard not to wish that some of these folks would get 24 hours of my experience, so they could grasp the difference.
I wrote this one about someone I love dearly as well as about myself. I think we just keep speaking up for one another and banding together. I don’t know why we don’t get engagement or real questions or exchange of vulnerabilities. But the more I write about this stuff, the more people I discover out there who live with challenges like we do. I discover them because they open up. That gives me hope.