There is no phrase more uninspired than “I can’t imagine.”
Yet this useless utterance makes frequent appearances, especially on Facebook, in response to people undergoing great difficulty. The phrase — also invoked when face to face with someone in dire straits — has the regrettable result of shutting down communication altogether.
I’m concerned about the feelings of my friends who have lost loved ones and are struggling to get through each day. The last thing they need to be confronted with is “I can’t imagine” in response to reality they are actually living.
What’s hard to imagine is why people would say something so unhelpful in times of duress. But I’ve done it myself, so I know it just slips right off the tongue. Sometimes we can’t (or don’t) pause to consider the implications of remarks before they are expressed.
The truth is that we imagine challenging scenarios all the time. What if this happens? What if that happens? So when we’re confronted with someone who is living our worst fears, we seek ways to suppress thoughts of it ever happening to us.
No one wants to face the realities of being separated from their children, or losing a spouse, or getting a cancer diagnosis. We simply can’t “go there” in our heads for any number of reasons. So out comes “I can’t imagine” and off we go.
But I’ve learned — though my own losses and poor responses — that human suffering is a call to action. A chance to extend your own humanity and even your own hand.
Even if we don’t want to imagine what someone else is going through, we can surely offer a few kind words to ease their passage. Because, at some point, the unimaginable will happen to you. When that day comes, imagine the help you’ll need.
The perfect three-word response to any hardship is “I love you.” The phrase puts the speaker and the receiver on the same team — fighting fear together. The phrase usually results in physical contact. Never underestimate the healing power of a hug. It has worked wonders for the followers of Amma, aka the hugging lady, who has put her arms around 30 million people worldwide. Her entire life has been dedicated to alleviating the pain of the poor, and those suffering physically and emotionally.
Also consider doing something helpful instead of saying “let me know if I can help” — idle terminology that puts the onus back on the sufferer. No one in a bad situation has the energy to think of ways you can be helpful to them. But if you absolutely can’t think of a way to be helpful — which is okay — then send a card with a sweet note. Or, drop off something they can literally hold onto: fuzzy blankets, scented oils, macaroni and cheese. Maybe even a book written by someone who has stood in their shoes.
When you’re at a complete loss for words, suggest taking a walk together. The act of putting one foot in front of another propels us forward. In the direction of hope. Since I quit drinking — a rather lonely and terrifying act — I have found great comfort in walking with a friend. Not only do I deeply appreciate her willingness to meet me on new ground, I am healing in the process.
Nobody teaches us how to help the suffering. As a result, we find it easier to hide our compassion behind a “lack” of imagination. But it’s there, searching for a way to be of service.
When my son and I went to India in May, I was afraid of what he’d see. I was afraid for my own eyes. There are few places where suffering is on greater display. But yet that’s a part of why we went. To face it. To witness our human companions on this Earth, as well as the Taj Mahal. Not to look away as we raced toward a Wonder of the World.
As we left a restaurant one afternoon, a lady came up and handed me a note. “I can’t speak. Can you help me?” I looked at her sad face which was inches from mine.
“Why can’t you speak?” I asked, not even sure why I was asking the question. How could she answer? What did it matter? She was mute. End of story. At issue was how, or if, to help.
In response to my question, the lady opened her mouth wide. Really wide. And instead of looking away, I looked in. Close enough to nearly put my eyeball on her bottom lip. What I saw in there would have been impossible to imagine. Someone had cut out her tongue. I could see scar tissue.
I had no words. Instead, I held her hand as we walked a few paces. I imagined what her life was like. I imagined who had done this to her. I imagined how much it hurt. I imagined someone doing this to my sister, friend or child. I went the distance with her — as well as the far reaches of my fear — at least for a few feet.
Did I help her? Well, I gave her a handful of rupees, of course. It was nothing compared to what I got in return. Looking deep in the recess of a tongue-less woman’s mouth opened my eyes to depth of my own heart.