Take Time to Listen to Friends in Need
Dartmouth teaches us many things, but perhaps most importantly, it teaches us the ability to think and act as educated and informed human beings. And in doing so, it often challenges us to push ourselves to the limit in terms of commitments and dedication, both in and out of the classroom. And many of us accept that challenge, if not happily, often at least grudgingly.
But what price are we paying? I will for the moment neglect any physical or mental toll this effort may exact, because I think we have all heard (many more times than we care to admit) about the detriments of our lifestyles to our bodies, our minds and our abilities to cope with stress. Instead, I will focus on the interpersonal aspect of our existence at Dartmouth. I propose that the most important words in the opening sentence of this column are not "educated" or "informed," but "human beings."
In the process of balancing demands and juggling commitments, perhaps the most critical thing we as students lose is our connection with others. How many times are conversations halted, lunches cut short or blitzes unanswered, because we are "busy"? How many times have you stopped yourself before telling someone a personal problem, because you knew how tired and stressed the other person was, and you didn't want to add to it? Is it any wonder that people at Dartmouth might at times feel that they cannot show others that they are anything but "okay" or "perfect," when a spontaneous in-depth conversation about heartfelt matters could be stopped at the drop of a hat in favor of another, apparently more important, commitment on the Day Planner -- meeting someone for coffee, going to practice, writing up a lab or watching ER, even?
A friend recounted to me a story about her freshman year: She ran into an acquaintance after a particularly upsetting event and she was asked, "How are you?" My friend responded that she was upset and was in general having a difficult time. "Oh, that's great," her acquaintance said, as she kept walking. Has this ever happened to you? Could you have ever been the acquaintance? How many times have you stopped to actually hear what the person responds when you blithely ask, "How are you?" in passing? We are so accustomed to hearing the "typical" Dartmouth answers -- fine, great, not bad, okay -- that anything else may not even have registered.
Granted, this is a particularly blunt example, but imagine this same type of interaction taking place very subtly each day. When a friend calls, "just to chat," do you think to question why he might be calling, rather than blitzing? Do you think, when he says that things are "fine," (with just a split-second of hesitation), to ask, "Are you sure?" Have you ever thought, just for a moment, that in calling you, he might be silently saying, "I am really depressed and I can't deal with these feelings anymore, and you're the person I chose to call and try to connect with right this minute"?
More often than not, your internal questioning would probably be unnecessary. Most times when my phone rings, the person on the other end isn't worried about making it through the day. How do I know? I watch them or listen to them. If someone says he's fine, I quickly (and rather automatically and unconsciously, at this point), ask myself, did his smile match the tone, or her inflection match the glance? If not, I take a second, and ask, "Really?"
You would be surprised what one second can do. You may laugh now, but there will, in all probability, be a time in your life when that question is not entirely unnecessary. So the next time you talk with someone, take a second or two from your busy day to listen -- really listen -- to what she says, and when she is done telling you she's okay, ask her again: "Really?"
This is not a simple solution. Sometimes, the answer won't be "Yeah, really," and we will have to take time from our days, reshuffle some priorities (maybe even forego some altogether) and put another person before ourselves and our deceptively pressing commitments. And though it doesn't take much time, it does take energy -- the energy required to move beyond yourself and be present and active in your community, and the energy required to try to resonate with and understand what another person is going through. But it is something relatively small that we can do to make the people around us know that we care about what is going on in their lives, in their minds and in their hearts.
It's actually a self-perpetuating cycle, because if everyone does it, you will regain the energy you expend in the process. Someone will be there for you when you've pasted a smile on your face to cover the stresses and worries of your life.
None of us is ever responsible for what another person chooses to do, but we are all responsible for making this world, and more pertinently, our immediate community, as livable as possible, on an everyday basis. So in this sense, it's not even a solution; it's simply a step toward creating a community in which we value people more than we value our grade point averages, our future jobs, our team standings or our awards. And it is the first step toward Dartmouth becoming a place that will teach us what we need to know in order to become more effective teachers, doctors, administrators, lawyers, parents and friends: That the only way we will all make it through is by caring about each other -- really.