Listening To a Friend

Your friend has just been dumped by their girlfriend. Limp, depressed, and possessed with a weltschmertz threatening to degenerate into total apathy to life, they begin telling you about their suffering, about how they miss those texts ‘good morning’ each day, and how – as is common when we have nothing left but memories to provide solace – those idiosyncrasies that once annoyed him, now bring a smile to his face. Your friend continues that it is hard to find anything worth smiling about now, with every day seeming bleaker than the last.

Isolation, John Cunnane, 2020.

‘There is so much to be happy about’ you reply to your friend, as you list all the joyous things they have (including having a friend so adept at listening). But this does not seem to cheer them up.

Are you at all surprised? All you have done is affirm the distance between yourself and your friend, between one who is content (or, at least, not manically depressed) and one who is not. If anything, your friend’s depression has been compounded with shame, because not only are they depressed, but they are now depressed because they seemingly do not even have the right to be depressed.

None of this is said, but it is certainly felt in your friend’s heart. Unmoved, you tell them to pick up yoga, focus on the things that are great in life, or go out and meet someone else, after all, there are so many fish in the sea. Once more, this does not change your friend’s countenance one iota.

Are you at all surprised? There is danger in telling people what they ought to do. When people are depressed, they are not looking for a teacher, they are looking for a friend; looking for a (mental or physical) embrace, not a guidebook. We often fall into this – well-meaning, yet misguided – trap of providing advice when people open up to us. What those in need require, even if it may not seem so to us, are not instructions on how to live their life, but patience, kindness, and the subtle understanding that indeed, life does suck at the moment, but it won’t forever. To be there for someone requires us to stop thinking about what we think should happen, but to focus, here and now, on what is actually happening. It means responding to them, not as a person who needs help, but as one who needs comfort. At its most fundamental, it means listening, really listening; that is, not listening merely to give a response, but to hearing out the inner anguish and unheard screams of a hurting soul.

If your friend wanted advice, they would have asked for it. Give them the credit – as you would expect others to give to you – that they will reach out for help if they need it. Sometimes we need help, but sometimes we just need someone to listen to us, to feel with us, and to understand us. It requires a particular kind of silence; the silence of a mind that is receptive to the other, without simply waiting to speak.

The redemptive power of friendship is more powerful than any advice. Rather than telling your friend what they ought to do, you could instead, place your hand on theirs, stare into their eyes, and tell them, with words that carry the weight of one who feels what they say in their very bones, that ‘I hear you’. Reminiscent of one of the 4 mantras of Thich Nhat Hanh,

The most precious gift you can give to the one you love is your true presence. So the first mantra is very simple: “Dear one, I am here for you”.

Helping Hands, Sarah Hancock, 2020.

Cultivating presence and really being there for someone is an incredibly difficult task, yet one of the most enriching and gratifying aspects of friendship. The most powerful remedy to depression is not advice on how to be happy, but on knowing that despite everything that has happened, you are not alone. If you can show your friend that you are there for them, your presence will help them heal more than any advice ever could.

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