Monday, August 24, 2009

How to Stop Handing out Fish.

I am short on sleep, and tired. For those who know me, the single biggest manifestation I experience when anxious is insomnia; and I've been anxious for the last couple of nights. I am uncertain what to do. I am watching someone that I care a great deal for head in a direction that will ultimately be harmful in his life. I know about this kind of harm because I have been in very similar circumstances myself and it has given me a perspective on his situation that is somewhat unique. Some of the questions that have been circulating my brain during the wee hours of the past two nights are these: what do I do? Do I intervene, try to convince him even more explicitly than I have already of the danger that he's getting himself, and risk losing the relationship at a time when he really needs it? Or do I stop talking about it at this point and allow him to make a pretty significant error of judgment about his life, even though I know he's in a real fog and can't even see that he's in a fog enough to understand how he's deceiving himself (and others)? If he continues down this path, consequences are significant.

It seems to me that in the past I would have been willing to risk forging ahead - in other words, intervening despite risk to the relationship. I've done this; most of us probably have. I'm capable of putting together pretty good arguments and I'm generally good at convincing people of things if I put some effort into it. Perhaps it's the right thing to do. Though even as I write this, I recognize the problem with this approach. In my experience both in life and in working as a mediator, I have found that it is rarely fruitful to try to persuade or convince someone that they need to go down a different path (hence I'm a mediator and not an arbitrator). Telling someone the error of their ways in the hopes of exacting change in their behaviour is usually futile. It may, in fact, work in the short term - in other words, I may experience compliance in the moment that I'm able to talk someone into the benefits of seeing things from my perspective. But talking someone into an intellectually-based decision is not the same as reaching their hearts. If someone doesn't truly believe and come to their own understanding that what they are doing is in need of change, the behaviour will ultimately revert back to what they were doing in the first place...because they never really believed there was a reason to change it in the first place.

The added complexity to this perspective is truly understanding that, no matter how clear things in another person's life looks from my perspective, I'm judging it in light of my own life experiences, my own world view. The truth is that I haven't walked in any person's shoes other than my own; as much as I think I understand based on what I've been through, I don't truly understand what anyone else's life is like and it is not me who will have to live out the consequences of another person's choices. Having made foolish choices of my own, I know what it's like to live permanently with the knowledge that I have made some very bad decisions that I simply can't erase no matter how much I wish I could. And oh, how I wish I could have a do-over of a few things in my life - this wish has been the source of many other sleepless nights. But I can't have a do-over; and I'm the only person who really understands what it's like to live with myself in the ever-after.

When I was in circumstances similar to those my friend now finds himself in, most people in my life gave me a consistent message: to stop doing what I was doing. They pointed out all of the (correct) reasons why I should change my behaviour and, deep down somewhere in the midst of my fog of self-deception, I knew they were probably right. There were two other friends in my life at the time who could easily and rightly have chosen to deliver the same message as everyone else; I trusted them and I would have listened. But these two individuals did something different for me that I've never forgotten - and never fully understood, though I have greater and greater appreciation for what they did for me. Although I knew full well that they believed what I was doing was harmful, they chose to simply support me. They regularly asked me questions (even some fairly pointed ones) about my situation but they chose not to tell me what to do, even when I eventually asked them for their opinions. They didn't presume to know what was best in my life. What that did was allow me to talk with them...about the whole situation, for better and for worse. Feeling compassion rather than judgment from them, I talked through so many things with them...and ultimately chose what has been by far the better path for my life. And here's the clincher: they would have remained supportive regardless of which path I chose. From those two women, I learned a new and deeper meaning of friendship and love, and I will never forget how much their non-judgmental support meant to me during those days. What I'm realizing now is how hard it must have been for them at times to be that kind of friend to me.

I believe I've just talked myself into the approach I want to take with my friend. I want to be to him what those two women were to me: supportive, non-judgmental, an occasional question-asker, a sounding board. After all it is he, and not I, who has to live with the consequences of his decisions, even if I will be affected by them. Even as I write these words, I have fresh appreciation for the weight that is attached to wanting to be this kind of support. He knows my opinion of the situation, so what I need to do now is stop expressing that opinion. And remember what it was specifically that my two friends did for me that enabled me to choose a path more wisely, on a more informed and reasonable basis. May I yet learn to be that friend who will resist the temptation to offer my friend a fish instead allowing him to take up fishing lessons.

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