Know That You Don't Know Shit: Advice from So Sad Today
You can't always fix people.
Illustrations by Joel Benjamin
Dear So Sad Today,
Do you think young people need to stop listening to their elders telling them what to think and think for themselves instead?
A Young Person
Dear Young Person,
Some people say that baby boomers and Gen Xers are the problem with society. Others say that millennials are fragile flowers who are fucking up everything. They’re probably all wrong.
I think it’s important to remember that our brains attempt to make sense of the world by compartmentalizing things, and humans too, into groups. It’s a sort of “packaging” thing we do, and, like most packaging, it doesn’t really reflect the true nature of what is inside the package. Therefore, I prefer to avoid blanket statements altogether.
We do live in a culture that reveres youth, and in which there is a media bias toward youth. As an example, look at the way we treat the elderly in this country as opposed to other countries. I, myself, admit to fearing the aging process in terms of a perceived loss of beauty, meaning, and the feeling that everything is already over. I have feared it since I was young, and I don’t think this fear was born in a cipher—uninfluenced by our culture.
At the same time, where age can definitely bring wisdom through the lens of experience, there is also an innate brilliance in seeing the world through fresh eyes. Philosopher Jiddu Krihnamurti said, “The day you teach the child the name of the bird, the child will never see that bird again.”
For me, finding people to trust has a lot less to do with age and more to do with who possesses beginner’s mind. The older I get, the more I know that I don’t know shit. I actually prefer it that way. In keeping, I trust those people the most who know that they don’t know, who are not convinced of their own righteousness, who maintain a sense of curiosity and reverence for the mystery that is life.
So, if you want my advice (and I’m guessing I might be a little older than you, so you can take it with a grain of salt), I would say that it’s less about the age of the individual and more about how much humility they bring to their perspective. Do they possess the ability to maintain an open mind? Can they ever see past their own self-interest? To me, that’s a good person to listen to.
Dear So Sad Today,
What’s the deal with the disconnect between the analysis of a mental health issue and the experiential side of it. For every time a well-intentioned family member says (for the millionth time) “I just read this article, I think you might find it useful…” I stifle an urge to reply, “Have any helpful articles about what it’s like to be on fire? I’m sure reading about it makes it easier to endure.”
Dear Burning Up,
In my experience with anxiety and depression, as well as in my partner’s progressive illness, I’ve found that most people deal with discomfort by wanting to fix and solve things. Sometimes this is born from their sincere desire to help. A compassionate person does not want to see someone they care about, or anyone really, in pain. Sometimes it’s done out of ego: the notion that everything in this world is fixable in a linear way. In these moments, people feel that they should be able to fix any problem. And of course, sometimes, a person will try to “fix” another person, because they are tired of hearing the person talk or feel that the condition reflects negatively on themselves in some way.
Regardless of the motive, this is when boundaries come into play. It’s like, sometimes we have to teach people how to treat us—let them know we actually do not want any advice or tips or medical perspectives right now. Maybe we just need an ear. We just want to vent. It definitely sucks to have to set these boundaries, because it can be exhausting. But I find that ultimately, the setting of a boundary is a lot less exhausting than what happens when I don’t.
Also, an old expression I like to say is, “Don’t go to the hardware store looking for milk.” It’s taken me many years to learn that not only should I not seek help from certain family members, but it’s actually better not to share any details of my life with them at all. It’s been a complicated journey in learning this. Not only do I feel guilty when I set these boundaries, but I still sometimes have a sincere desire to find comfort in these people. There’s a mourning involved when we finally realize that comfort and compassion are not something a certain person has to give.
I’m still in no way perfect at this. At times I forget, or choose to forget, that these hardware store people don’t have milk. At other times, the hardware store comes to me and tries to force itself upon me. This can happen. But if you feel like you are continually facing the same dead end with a person, ask yourself if you are playing any part in letting them in in the first place.