Today, I am bone tired.
I won’t belabor the details, but let’s just say my family got hit with a big, mean cold while navigating planes, trains, and automobiles. I have to put on a capable, happy face — preferably without snot running down it.
The weird thing is that I have been surrounded by generous, big-hearted people. People I’m related to. People I consider my dear friends. People I’ve just met but seem like the sort who actually mean it when they say, “I’m so sorry you’re having a bad day. Is there anything I can do to help?”
So why, amid all this sincere generosity, have I still felt so alone?
Because there is a place beyond tired — bone tired — where you don’t even have the wherewithal to ask for what you need. When you’re in this state of mind, kind humans offer up their time and talent to you, but somehow you can’t receive it. You’re in a fog of exhaustion where you can only see an arms length ahead: reply to this email, return this call, drink this coffee, do this dish, survive, barely.
Then someone stopped offering help and started ordering me around — namely my husband (which, if you know me, is pretty hilarious). “That’s it,” he said. “Get in bed and take a nap.”
Without saying another word, I stripped down, peeled back the clean, white sheets of the hotel bed, set the timer on my iPhone for one hour, and crashed. When I woke up, the fog was further out. Not gone. But a little bit less ominous.
I’ve been thinking about what a gift his bossiness was ever since. How many times have I met a friend’s desperation with what I thought was a truly generous statement? If there is anything I can do, let me know. I’m here for you. It’s always well-intentioned, but it’s too easy. It doesn’t, in truth, really work. Almost no one follows up with a request. It requires energy that the truly down-and-out — whether grieving or overwhelmed or depressed — just don’t have. And yet we keep saying it to one another. It’s a gesture, not a rock. A drawing of a life preserver, not the actual thing.
In part, people resist doing things — bringing soup, making an acupuncture appointment, taking the kids for the day — for friends in need, because we wisely understand that not everyone is built the same, particularly in their darker moments. Some of us genuinely want to be left alone; we need the salve of silence. Some of us feel comforted by a body right up next to us — the isolation shattered by the warm breath of another human. Some of us need sleep. Some of us need to be dragged out of the house.
When we tell loved ones to tell us what they need, the hope is that we might provide exactly what they actually want. It’s a safeguard against projecting what we would want on them.
Parker Palmer, while being interviewed by Krista once about his own depression, relayed this moving story:
“There was this one friend who came to me, after asking permission to do so, every afternoon about four o’clock, sat me down in a chair in the living room, took off my shoes and socks and massaged my feet. He hardly ever said anything. He was a Quaker elder. And yet out of his intuitive sense, from time to time would say a very brief word like, ‘I can feel your struggle today,’ or farther down the road, ‘I feel that you’re a little stronger at this moment, and I’m glad for that.’ But beyond that, he would say hardly anything. He would give no advice. He would simply report from time to time what he was sort of intuiting about my condition. Somehow he found the one place in my body, namely the soles of my feet, where I could experience some sort of connection to another human being. And the act of massaging just, you know, in a way that I really don’t have words for, kept me connected with the human race.”
Asking for permission makes sense, but beyond that, just touching Parker’s feet, in a sense, saved his life. I think we often err too much on the side of getting it right instead of just showing up and getting compassionately commanding. Could this be why more of us don’t actually tell friends when we’re feeling low — because we don’t want to navigate the abstract offers of assistance?
I have had so many moments when I am deep in the fog and I don’t reach out. I don’t know what to say. I don’t have a neat story about my sadness. There are only a few people that I feel comfortable being totally incoherent with, calling and saying,
“Hi. I’m going to cry. I’m okay, but I’m just going to cry.” Often I don’t call, not just in order to spare someone my blubbering, but to spare them my confusion over what they can do to soothe me. It’s so much responsibility, isn’t it? It feels like we are expected to be simultaneously devastated and proactive in our culture. What about just being broken for a moment?
When I was recovering from birth, people brought food — huge pans of gooey lasagna and chard tarts, frozen curry and tamales. They didn’t ask. They just showed up, trays in hand. Sometimes they stayed long enough to kiss the squirming little babe, but mostly they just ding dong ditched. I was reminded with each oat-filled cookie and spoonful of bone broth soup: we had brought this defenseless creature into a community, not just a two-parent household. We didn’t have to do it alone.
I want to do more of that in my life for others. I want to show up and be a little bit bossy — steer my friend into bed, do her laundry, entertain her children while she drinks a cup of tea alone and breathes. I want to answer the phone for a new mom when she calls courageously in her full messy confusion. I want to get better at calling others in that state, too. I want to put my husband to bed sometimes, even when he insists he’s fine because I can see in his face that he isn’t. I want to trust that my loved ones will tell me if I haven’t picked the right strategy for soothing the first time around. I want to love them fiercely when they’re in the fog.