Listen to her
The undervalued power of peer support
She was lying to me. She was telling me that everything was fine, but her body was saying something else. She was forcing herself to be brave, to fake the courage we are all supposed to have.
I stood at the edge of her open door, and I had a choice. I could either take her answer as it was and pretend I didn’t notice the discomfort, or I could ask her how she was really doing. I chose the latter, and to this day, I am so thankful for that decision.
How many times have you passed by someone you know today? How many times did you decide to ask them how they are doing? How many times did you bother to truly understand, beyond the typical “okay” or “fine”?
I’m guilty of being negligent, too. MIT drowns us in its business. Busy is good. Busy means you’re doing important things. Busy means you’re being productive and taking advantage of the opportunities. Busy is good.
I’m ashamed to admit this, but even though I asked her how she really was, part of me wasn’t present. In the back of my mind, I was wrestling with my conscience. I was struggling to choose between helping the teary-eyed girl standing in front of me and going back to the crunch of finishing my two psets due the next morning. A little voice called “efficiency” was nagging at me, performing a series of optimizations to solve this problem as quickly as possible.
She had now invited me into her room. The voice of “efficiency” was becoming unhappy with me. Now what have you gotten yourself into! You’ll never be able to turn your psets in on time! But my sense of obligation told efficiency to back off. You can’t just leave her hanging there. You have to help her.
But what should I say? I turned inward momentarily, staring at the floor. I remembered that when I was sad, I hated when people asked me, “Are you okay?" Wasn’t it obvious that I was sad? I couldn’t bring myself to ask her that.
I was now feeling forced into this state of unknowns, and I knew that it was wrong. Why did I feel like helping her was an obligation? I wanted to be there for her, but I was unwilling to make the sacrifice. I was selfish.
The growing awkwardness in the room compelled me to speak. “Thank you for letting me in. Let’s sit down and talk for a bit?” Her eyes brightened. She clearly wanted me to stay. She wanted my help.
We were silent then. We sat in silence for what seemed to be an eternity. The clock was screaming against the quiet with its ticks and tocks. My mind was, too, but it forgot how to put words into sentences. My mind wanted me to do something. Maybe I should boil some hot water and make her some tea. Maybe I should grab the pack of seaweed snacks from my room and share that with her. I was searching for something to break this silence. Anything. To me, the silence was awkward. I didn’t know how to find peace with the quiet, so I wanted to fight against it.
The only thing that prevented me from running around haphazardly to make her feel more comfortable was that she didn’t seem to think it was awkward. So I fought my inner voice and sat in the silence that I thought would never end.
Then she gave me a hug and thanked me.
Why did she thank me? I hadn’t done anything useful. At least, that’s what I thought. I later learned that she loved the silence from that moment. The silence was beautiful. The silence brought a sense of peace and calm she hadn’t felt in a really long time. She didn’t care that we weren’t saying anything. The mere presence of having someone beside you, knowing that she took time to be with you, was more than comforting. And I listened. I listened to the initial shortness of her breath, and how it calmed to slower, longer durations. Just by being there, I was bringing light to the dark tunnel she was stuck in. I didn’t realize I was capable of doing that, and it was enlightening to see that it was within my power to drastically improve someone’s day.
I’ve realized that you can’t be efficient with people. You have to be present.
Looking back, I was scared that I had to do a lot to help someone, but I didn’t have to do much at all. All I needed to do was listen, process what they were saying, and be there for that person. Whoever comes to you for help is in a hurricane, and the best thing you can do is offer her a shelter of warmth and love.
Listening can work miracles.
Linda leads Lean On Me, an anonymous peer supporter network. To learn more and get involved, visit http://lean0n.me/