Nothing is promised to anyone. No trajectory is so definite that one can claim it unequivocally for oneself, let alone assign it to another as a matter of assumption. Some things are not just a matter of time. Some things are not going to happen just because no one ever told you that you can imagine other storylines, other ways to measure a happy ending or a better beginning. No one warned you about what is known as “the danger of a single story”.
And most certainly – if we can be certain about anything at all – nothing is going to happen just because saying it will is the easiest way to extricate yourself from someone else’s problems. It’s not that you lack empathy – most of the time, the problem stems from truly wanting to say anything to give them immediate assurance. But you do not have the right to parrot a prevarication and call it a promise.
It’s a disrespectful thing, you know, to dismiss someone or their choices – and a cruel thing to dismiss their pain – through a throwaway warranty.
So if – for instance – someone tells you that they have made a plan to adopt a child because they haven’t been able to conceive, don’t say, “Don’t give up”. If someone tells you they are going to seek professional mental healthcare, don’t say, “You’re so negative. Try positive thinking.” If someone says they’d rather stay single than marry for anything but love, don’t say, “You’re so picky.” If someone says they need to leave an abusive relationship, don’t say, “It’ll be okay once you have a baby.” If someone tells you their heart still hurts a year after a romantic disappointment, don’t say, “Get over it, there are many fish in the sea”. If someone tells you they are offended culturally by an idea you brought to a board room, don’t say, “Don’t be so sensitive.” If someone says they think they may be queer, don’t say, “Pshaw. Yeah right.”
In short, if someone tells you they are left-handed, don’t say, “Highly unlikely. Don’t be silly. Only demon children are lefties. You just haven’t tried using your right hand, that’s all.”
Because really – how dare anyone make these proclamations, assuming that everyone has equal access and equal luck, identical hopes and identical coping strategies?
Bad advice is dangerous, but equally dangerous is any kind of dismissal. All that will happen is that the person will feel, well, dismissed. They’ll turn to more indulgent sources – not all of whom will mean as well as you do.
The best way to comfort is not to try and provide solutions, but just to listen. Most of the time, the answer is within us – and speaking out loud helps us arrive at it.
So instead of informing someone how their journey should be (and therefore will be), why not let them tell you how they wound up where they are, and what they think lies ahead? Don’t make the offbeat path harder than it is. Just give them a little company – a crying shoulder, if need be. Words can make certain things better – but who should do the speaking, even so?
An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on September 21st 2017. “The Venus Flytrap” appears on Thursdays in Chennai’s City Express supplement.