Parker Palmer’s book is brief, but deep and important. It reads like he wrote nothing excessive, then reduced the words by half– it is that intense and powerful. I was especially interested in his reflections on his own times of depression and they way his experiences resonated with mine.
…then there were the visitors who began by saying, “I know exactly how you feel…” Whatever comfort or counsel these people may have intended to speak, I heard nothing beyond their opening words, because I knew they were peddling a falsehood: no one can fully experience another person’s mystery. Paradoxically, it was my friends’ empathetic attempt to identify with me that made me feel even more isolated, because it was overidentification. Disconnection may be hell, but it is better than false connections.
Having not only been “comforted” by friends but having tried to comfort others in the same way, I think I understand what the syndrome is about: avoidance and denial. One of the hardest things we must do sometimes is to be present to another person’s pain without trying to “fix” it, to simply stand respectfully at the edge of that person’s mystery and misery. Standing there, we feel useless and powerless, which is exactly how a depressed person feels– and our unconscious need as Job’s comforters is to reassure ourselves that we are not like the soul before us.
In an effort to avoid those feelings, I give advice, which sets me, not you, free. If you take my advice, you may get well– and if you don’t get well, I did the best I could. If you fail to take my advice, there is nothing more I can do. Either way, I get relief by distancing myself from you, guilt free.
What I love about these words goes way beyond the truth they illuminate, to their implication: all of us have been victims of this ‘syndrome’, and all of us have been guilty of propagating it. It seems like part of the human condition.