One of the most profound lessons I’ve learned about dealing with someone else’s anxiety, tragedy, disappointment, loss, or sadness came from a very typical and brief encounter during undergrad. I went to a small college where everyone in the same major tended to take the same classes at the same time. As we all advanced in our respective degrees, we started dealing with stresses unique to our fields. For us English majors, our perpetual modus operandi revolved around deadlines for major papers.

One particular semester, we were all taking an upper level Shakespeare course. After coming back from a long holiday the day before our major composition was due, we were bleary-eyed and intellectually confused together. We visited each other in our dorms to check progress and exhale our stress, feeding off the group “freak out” mentality.

While on my way for one of these visits, I passed a classmate in the hall who looked particularly panicked. I, of course, offered the instinctual “How’s it going?” to which she mumbled an answer stilted enough to be audible, yet capable of holding back her tears. For some reason (I believe divine intervention), instead of launching into my own story of woe, I simply said, “I’m sorry. That’s really tough.” My poor classmate almost transformed into a waterfall, then she looked at me directly and replied, “Thank you. You are the first person to just say ‘sorry.'”

Naturally, I was pretty stunned to be thanked for what I initially deemed a pitiful response to a situation begging for some erudite answer dripping in expert wisdom. Perhaps a quote from Milton or Keats or, as would be apropos in this case, the famous bard himself, would have better reflected by keen ability to use the language and literature I spent so many hours studying. How was my painfully brief little response remotely comforting?

Then, later, when I was in the same place of exasperation in a different class as she experienced with Shakespeare, I realized how refreshing it is to be able to voice an anxiety and get a simple response of acknowledgement that, yes, “this” is tough and here is a small dose of sympathy.

Since that moment I have tried, often unsuccessfully, to guard my tongue against the useless advice and self-promotion that is usually prompted by someone else’s trial. And since spending many years after that moment studying language and rhetoric, I’ve come to form some guidelines for myself about how to respond to others during a moment of pain based on an evaluation of my own motives. And here they are:

1) Never say “I understand”

Having the same deadline for the same paper for the same class only gave me a frame of reference for what my classmate was experiencing. I had no way to really understand her personal struggle. I could relate, perhaps, but not understand.

2) Never say “I know how you feel”

This response is the ultimate rhetorical vehicle for autobiographical monologue. I had used this response in my conversations with other  Shakespeare classmates in order to, I later surmised, talk about myself. The power of this response is to switch from listener to speaker, from one offering sympathy to one requiring it.

3) Never offer unsolicited advice

We are all compelled to give advice. I often feel as if I have offered nothing until I give some sort of course of action for whoever has the misfortune to come to me with their troubles. I have since tried to remind myself that advice should be an asked-for response only.

4) Never say “Everything’s going to be ok”

What constitutes “ok” for that person? The second I become omniscient, which will be never, is the moment I can take leave to offer this vague response.

I don’t mean to come across as judgmental of anyone who falls prey to these common modes of sympathy. Indeed, I still find myself subject to the allure of claims of understanding. My point, instead, is that very seldom, and I would argue only very rarely, are these responses ever appropriate or “true.” Most often, we reply in these forms in order to exit an onramp to stories about ourselves, what we’ve gone through or are going through. We employ these very useful rhetorical cues to position ourselves as the protagonist, the lead character, instead of embracing the role of supporting cast.

Again, I in no way mean to offend. My friends and family are much better than I am of avoiding these sympathy pitfalls. They are much kinder to me in my times of struggle than I am to them. And I also apologize for this very odd interruption in my normally inane posts. This particular subject has just been very much on my mind of late.