By Chris Prange-Morgan
I work in healthcare and have the privilege of listening to lots of patients from all walks of life. It’s an honor and a gift to be with patients and families at their most vulnerable and trying times. I strive to be trusted as a safe, nonjudgmental, open set of ears that will simply listen, without the pressure or the need to fix.
I’ll admit it: I’m a stubborn recovering fixer. If there’s a way to cut through the challenge, the pain, or the difficulty of a situation, I’m all over it. Like everyone else, I hate suffering. I hate unanswered questions and waiting and situations I can’t control (or make better). But if there’s anything I’ve learned from a morphing pandemic now screeching into its third arduous year, it’s a realization that sometimes it’s helpful to pause, shift the focus from doing to being, and try to better understand what’s happening in us and around us.
Here’s how I’m working on that.
Validate people’s experiences.
I might not like what I’m hearing, or I might feel threatened or saddened by it. But that doesn’t mean I can or should challenge another person’s experience. Invalidation kills empathy dead in its tracks, and it makes us feel more isolated and alone.
I’m a below-knee amputee, and one of the things I noticed early in the prosthetic fitting process is that the best prosthetists are the best listeners. Those of us who have been in the game long enough know this. Whenever your leg minder invalidates your discomfort by saying “you’ll get used to it,” “give it some time,” or “it’s in your head,” a red flag pops up that says “Run!”—that is, if you have a running blade. If not, just kindly hop away.
Validation of experience is a balm to the soul, and a listening ear is a gift to any weary life traveler.
Resist the urge to give advice.
Advice-giving is usually more of a reflection of our inability to sit with discomfort. With the exception of healthcare professionals or peers struggling with similar issues, well-meaning suggestions often serve to isolate the other person or shut down connection. When you start uttering phrases like “can’t you just,” “why don’t you,” or “have you tried,” you’ve stopped trying to understand another person’s experience and started trying to change it.
I struggle hearing so many people use the words “I know I should….” It seems folks constantly feel the pressure to prove their worth through what they do or accomplish. And if they’re doing well enough just to survive (as many of us are these days), they feel something is drastically wrong with them. I’m tempted to blame social media for this, but maybe not. It’s embedded in our culture—the same culture that has led to what we are now calling The Great Resignation. It’s the collective experience of constantly working to prove something and feeling disconnected, tired, and invalidated as a result.
In the disability community, we worry about whining too much, not rising above adversity well enough, or failing to provide inspiration to others. On social media threads, I’ve seen judgment about returning to work or collecting disability benefits. On the parenting front, I worry that if I share my challenges, some mom will jump to some quick idea of how to do it better, or if I “just do it this way” all of my child’s behavioral challenges will miraculously melt away. I know I’m not alone. It can be exhausting.
While the perceived onslaught of comments can be completely imagined, it stems from a cultural obsession with moving away from discomfort. What we really need to do is move closer—to listen more closely and more intensely. It takes time to really understand what other people are going through.
Understand that sometimes you just won’t understand—and that’s okay.
Every day, I remind my family that it takes me longer than them to get going. If I switch shoes, I’ve got prosthetic foot adjustments to make, and I need to “walk it out” to see if things feel okay. I don’t expect anyone else to understand, other than fellow leg amputees. Yet my family has gained a degree of empathy in learning how to wait for me—to take their jackets off and watch me amble about the dining room, trying to figure out whether I’ve hit the walking sweet spot yet. I wish they truly understood how hard it can be sometimes, but I know that it’s impossible to really know what it’s like unless you’re living it.
That’s the thing about empathy: We can’t always understand, but we can be present for each other, and we can listen. Even if we know we’ll never truly get it, we can always try. And that’s enough.
In these anxious times, it’s important to realize that the best comfort we can give one another is our presence. The opportunity to listen and to learn and to grow from one another is truly the gift of healing.
Chris Prange-Morgan is a patient advocate, trauma survivor, and hospital chaplain.