What to say when someone is feeling down

Sometimes we feel helpless when we see our loved ones feeling down. So we go into proactive mode – we try to cheer them up, suggest solutions to their problems, hurry them to feel happier, because we care and don’t like seeing them upset. Unfortunately this can have the opposite effect and make them feel worse, because it feels like you are glossing over their feelings, or implying that their feelings are not valid. If you are not sure what to say or do, maybe try asking “What can I do to help?”. The answer might be a simple “Just sit and listen”.

2020 has exposed our ignorance of privilege, and here’s what we can do about it

2020 so far has been crazy, to say the least. Our world shut down for half a year. 

We’ve seen every possible reaction to the pandemic, from denial to panic to hope, to sacrifice and courage from medical personnel on the frontlines, to neighbours looking out for each other, and people rallying together to strengthen each other. 

We’ve had to confront mortality – look it straight in the eye and see how frail and fragile and fleeting our existence really is. We’ve lost loved ones, and we’ve been reminded of how vulnerable we can be as a human race. Nature has humbled us, though it is questionable how long we will remember it. For a race that’s lived as long as it has, humans have a surprisingly short memory span.  

Then racial inequality reared its ugly head again, thankfully caught on camera this time, and lit a fuse that’d been waiting to be ignited. Latent frustration exploded. How are we, as a human race, having the same conversations about inequality again and again and learning nothing? 

There has been much discussion online and offline on how to make sense of 2020. I’ve heard people say that perhaps 2020 is the wake up call that the world needed, ‘the year we’ve been waiting for’. That having to stay home was a blessing in disguise, because it reconnected us with our family, and forced us all to reconsider our priorities. That before we go back to normal, we consider what kind of normal we want to go back to.

These sorts of statements are very telling of how insidious privilege and entitlement can be. It’s not that the people making these statements intend to be insensitive, it’s precisely that they don’t realise they could be. Privilege tends to be a blindspot for those who enjoy its benefits.

Those extolling the unexpected benefits of lockdown on their relationships and their quality of life may not have realised that, if the worst thing COVID-19 did to you was to limit your mobility and suddenly thrust free time upon you, you are in a privileged position.

For many others, 2020 has been a year of grave loss – loss of loved ones, loss of jobs, loss of freedom, companionship, and dignity. For many, there just isn’t a normal to go back to.

For many medical personnel on the frontlines, who risk their lives and the lives of their loved ones for us daily, who are overworked, overwhelmed and tired, a post about how working from home during COVID-19 has saved you from your busyness and reminded you to appreciate your family might feel like a punch in the gut. For them, COVID-19 hasn’t been so much about connecting with their family, but isolating themselves from them in order to protect them.

For some of us, 2020 has laid bare our ignorance of privilege. This begs the question, if privilege is insidious, what can we do about it?

We can start by being more empathetic. We can start questioning our assumption that our point of view is universal. This sounds so obvious but it takes practice to become aware of your blindspot. There’s nothing wrong with using lockdown as a chance to reflect and improve your life, just don’t speak as though the ‘silver linings’ of COVID-19 are universally applicable to everyone else.

While we, the privileged, are reassessing our lives, we can still hold space in our hearts for those for whom 2020 has had (and continues to have) devastating consequences. We can be a bit more sensitive about the messages we put out into the world. We can check ourselves and make sure we are not being defensive about our privilege (and saying things like ‘all lives matter’). Better yet, we can reach out and offer a listening ear or a helping hand. Instead of saying things like “I know how you feel” (we really don’t) or “this too shall pass” (condescending much?), we can learn to ask, “What can I do to help?”.

Perhaps it’s our way of coping, to try to give meaning to this crazy year by ‘learning from it’ or trying to find the silver lining. For me personally, this comes dangerously close to toxic positivity. It’s okay to just accept that 2020 so far has sucked, without trying to give it some greater meaning. It’s also okay to find meaning in it, if you are so inclined, but perhaps it can be done in a way that doesn’t diminish the suffering of others.