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October 17th, 2018
When misfortune befalls a friend or loved one, we all ask the same thing:
Are you ok?
The intentional origin of this question is a good one: We are trying to show we care and trying to suss out anyway that we can help. Often the response to such a question is simple and ambiguously short, like ‘yes’ or ‘I don’t know’, and rarely might we get the surprisingly honest ‘no’. This is an unsatisfying ending for the urge to help, and so such an urge can often prompt the exact same attempt. After a few moments, we see a flash of dismal thought or memory across the face of a friend or loved one, and we ask again:
Are you ok?
We generally fail to think about what the effect of such a repeated question is in the mind of our listener. From our own perspective, we are simply acting once again on an urge to be helpful, but from the perspective of such a friend or loved one, we must wonder: what’s it like to be asked if you’re ok repeatedly?
Instead of sparking a productive conversation, it’s more likely that such a repeated question will land and spur the thought: Am I ok? Maybe not? Especially if they keep asking. Maybe they see something that I don’t. Maybe I’m really not ok. Wow, what’s wrong?
Such a short internal dialogue is deceptively insidious because at face value it seems to fit the situation perfectly. Some misfortune has occurred, there is reason to feel below normal. But unless the misfortune is of the nature that can be worked on, like a problem that can be solved, asking ‘what’s wrong?’ can result in looking for a problem that isn’t solvable. It can become a psychological fool’s errand that leads someone off on a totally unproductive and potentially damaging set of thinking.
The most effective argument is often the one that is simply repeated more often than any other argument. We might imagine, for example the nightmarish situation of trying to go about our day as normal and having every single person we try to talk to or work with look us straight in the face and say ‘you’re crazy’. Who wouldn’t eventually go nuts in this situation? We have a bad tendency to believe what most other people believe at face value, potentially even when it comes to the state of our own minds.
The well intentioned person merely asking if someone is ok has hit a far different target. A mindful pause is often all that’s needed to realize that perhaps just the company of a caring person is far more effective than asking “are you ok?” for the zillionth time.
Likewise, we might do well to remember for times when misfortune befalls ourselves and we are peppered with such a gaslighting question: are you ok?
Perhaps we can respond. “No, I’m not, but I will be. Thank you so much for asking.”
Such a response puts a pin in it far more effectively than the usual one-word answer. Remembering such is definitely more difficult in times of trial, and certainly a strong moment of mindfulness is required for this sort of wherewithal.
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