Not long ago, I was asked this question: “What are useful and helpful things to say when someone is going through hard times?” I answered:
“Speaking only from personal experience with 50 years as an adult encountering friends, family, and colleagues who were going through hard times — and being a person who has experienced some great loss and difficult times — I’ve found that the best response is to say very little and listen a lot. People who are suffering losses — deaths, tragic illnesses, deep doubt and depression, family breakups, divorces, job loss, etc. — are not looking for verbal consolation; they are in transmit mode…seeking empathetic listeners, people who genuinely keep their ears and hearts open, and their mouths and opinions closed. There will come a time when the grieving or suffering person will let you know when they want to engage in dialogue, when they are open to hearing your thoughts, are receptive to your examples of moving forward. But you have to be patient and kind and quietly comforting until that time. We all want to console and offer words that will somehow assuage our fellow human who is hurting, and it is so tempting to share by example (“l know how you feel…when my dad died…”), but your example is not their grief; your method for coping worked for you, but it may be irrelevant to how they see life at the moment.”
Those phrases, “To say very little and listen a lot…they are in transmit mode,” are part of the wisdom I learned from my parents, teachers, and key mentors I had along the arcs of my personal and professional lives. Their consistent (and common sense) advice — to counsel patience, personal reflection, and fact-inspection when faced with seemingly overwhelming challenges of the heart, mind, and career — has too often, of late, slipped off my to-do list when it comes to trying to comprehend the existential meaning of the maelstrom of rude politics, social discord, and threats to humanity posed by environmental abuse.
I believe we all are two-way radios, capable of transmitting and receiving information on an infinite number of frequencies. In our day-to-day lives, we are subject to the broadest possible band of auditory, visual, and subliminal signals — human interactions that hum and buzz and occasionally crash in on us totally unbidden. The cicada-like droning of all the incoming messages around us drowns out the signals we need to be tuned into, those frequencies that emanate from not from any man-made electronic transmitter, but are transmitted to us from our better angels, or, if you’d rather, from our conscience.
I admit to being one of those message-distracted persons who, due in part to my training as a journalist, in part to my work as a government cipher for too many decades, and in part due to my natural instinct to try to comprehend everything all the time, has developed a flinch reaction to momentary shifts in social and political gravity. Sometimes, every new object is irresistibly shiny, every motion around me is another squirrel to be chased, every noise above my head is a wolf in the attic, every new report of the human condition and downward curve of the Dow portends worldwide danger just over the horizon.
The truth is bad enough: the Amazon is on fire, polar bears are running out of habitat, the bottom-most depths of the oceans are littered in plastic, coastlines are being drowned. And that’s a short list without going into the travesty of a border wall (read up on eminent domain), immigrant camps and deportation, categorizing eligibility for citizenship for newborns of military personnel and government civilians stationed overseas, sexual predators, mass shootings, opioid additions, hate crimes, human trafficking, and dissembling from leadership offices at both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue.
For me, my personal radio is all too often set in “receive” mode in all frequencies. And in that mode, everything comes in — good, bad, neutral, truth, fiction, fantasy — to the point where the only messages I react to are the loudest ones, the more repetitive ones, the ones that overpower the truly important ones that may not have the signal strength to get through. I think a lot of us, perforce, go through our lives that way. Over time, we forget how to discriminate, or fine tune our personal radios. We forget we are in control of the frequencies we want or need to listen to. We forget we have control over the gain — the signal strength — of every message we receive.
Over the past two years, the noise level emanating from my Washington, D.C., hometown has increased to almost intolerable levels at all audible frequencies. From the far left to the far right, the political noise has become a background din much like construction noise in New York City — there is always some outrage going up, some proposal to be torn down. Jackhammer-anger and wrecking ball counterattacks are a 24/7 way of life here.
The best visual of the noise machinery is on display on the South Lawn of the White House whenever the president holds a press availability with the background whine of Marine One’s idling turbines shredding reporters’ questions. The media noise follows the political noise, and often competes dis-harmoniously with the people and organizations it covers. Cable network talking heads compete for available decibel room, and it seems, with few exceptions (Fareed Zakaria, Christiane Amanpour at the top of my list) that no panel “discussion” is complete without heated and loud exchanges of unbending positions. On-air comity died years ago.
And then there is the social media noise machinery — arguably the worst of all. It is here that the visual noise — the slashing written words, the drone of trolls, the unhinged ALL CAPS posts, the sadly uneducated rants of misinformed conspiracy believers, the immovable position takers, the bullies, the pot-shot cowards, the blind adherents to inhumane, unethical, immoral policies — becomes a cacophony that overwhelms all reason, like an out of control staple gun to the brain.
Well, I don’t need my brain stapled by someone else’s unfiltered noise. I’ve backed off my social media presence, unfriended or stopped following a number of posters who, even though I know them to be nice folks under other circumstances, are getting carried away by the noise and who feel compelled to add to it, not diminish it. Life is just too damn short to accept as normal the waves of noise that crash onto my private shore.
I’m tuning my personal radio to the quieter channels, to the messages from friends and colleagues and kind-hearted persons for whom life is meant to be experienced in softer tones. I’m endeavoring to receive more than I transmit, and to keep an ear out for the kind word that is struggling to be heard through the roaring surf of meanness.
I will endeavor to listen more to stories like the one out of Wichita, Kansas — the wonderfully pure story of two little boys, Conner and Christian, who bonded on the first day of elementary school. Christian Moore, 8, saw another 8-year-old boy, Conner, standing in a corner, alone, and crying. Christian, unbidden by anything other than his own desire to reach out to another child in pain, took Conner’s hand and helped him overcome his distress. Christian didn’t know that Conner is autistic; he only saw the pain and wanted to assuage that pain through comfort. There is no doubt that Christian had his radio tuned in and was in full-receive mode. If Christian can do that, I know I can.