I’ve always believed that people come into our lives to teach us something. It’s an easy belief to have because when I look closely at each person in my life, I can find some kind of lesson I’ve learned just from knowing them. Some of them are good lessons–my dearest friends helped me find the courage to be myself and they stood by me in the messy process of figuring out just who that was. I have friends who play brave music, friends who make bold art, friends who write and speak and work and love in ways that change me just from having known them.
I also have a handful of people in my life who have helped me learn lessons the hard way. Some of the people who taught me the most have been the ones to hurt me the most. Heartbreak, hurt, loss and betrayal can teach us as much as love and patience and kindness.
A few years ago while pondering all that these amazing people have taught me, it occurred to me that perhaps by sharing my experiences, lessons and perspectives with others, I could have something to teach them as well. I’m so profoundly grateful for my teachers in this life that it felt like a privilege to be able to offer something back, or perhaps pay it forward. I felt like I had something to offer.
And that’s where I’ve been for the last few years–sharing my experiences and my perspectives whenever the opportunity arose. I don’t set out intending to teach anyone anything, I simply offered what I had and others were welcome to take it or leave it. I reasoned that my perspective was simply another tool someone could use to see in a different light.
But sometimes my offers weren’t well-received. At the time, this surprised me. Why wouldn’t someone want the chance to learn or see something in a different way? I defended my belief that sharing my story with others was the way to be a good friend–to offer what I had learned so that they could learn as well.
It never occurred to me that I had something else to offer.
One of my greatest teachers in this lifetime is a beautiful, wise and thoughtful woman named Lisa. Lisa has wisdom and experience that can be applied to almost any situation.
We were drinking wine on the porch one evening and talking about the challenges she was discovering while parenting a teenager. “It will get better,” I said. “It’s natural for them to pull away,” I said, along with a host of other “wisdoms” that were intended to be encouraging and comforting.
At the end of the evening, as we were saying our goodbyes, I joked about how she needed to figure out the parenting a teenager thing so that when it came my turn, she could tell me what to do. I don’t remember the exact wording of her response, but it was something like, “I’ll be there to tell you that I see you doing the best you can and that your best is good enough.”
I think it was just a random comment to her. But it stopped me in my tracks.
My mind walked back through our conversation that evening. I had offered advice. I had told her it would get better, that it was normal, etc. I had talked about all the things I “knew.” But had I once acknowledged her capacity in the situation? Had I in any way said to her, “I see you. I see you doing your best. And it’s good. You have everything you need. You got this.”
I hadn’t. Not once. I spent the entire conversation focused on what I brought to the conversation without once acknowledging what she was already bringing.
Somewhere along the line, in my desire to have something to offer, I started casting myself in the role of “teacher” rather than “friend.” I thought the only way to help, to be a good “friend,” was to bring something to the table that they didn’t have. But in doing so, I stopped seeing all the amazing wisdom and learning my friends already had. I forgot that we are all students, no matter what our roles or relationship in life are. We are all students. And we are all in this together.
Human beings are brilliant, amazing, intelligent, thoughtful and, most importantly, diverse. Other people don’t need me to solve their problems. They don’t need me to soften life’s blows. They don’t need me to sugar coat it or open their eyes or lead them. They don’t need me to have the keys to their problem.
Sometimes, however, they do need to be seen. We all do. When things get tough, something as simple as someone saying, “I see you. I see you over there doing the best you can. You’re doing great,” can make all the difference.
It’s hard to change patterns, but I’m trying. When my dear friend confides in me about the end of her marriage, a situation I’ve been through before, I resist the urge to tell her everything I know, and instead I try to ask and to notice. I ask how she is feeling, what scares her and what she hopes for. I ask her what she needs. And I notice how brave she is. How strong she is. How focused and clear she is.
And if she asks my advice or asks about my experiences, I will happily share them with her. But the truth is, I don’t need an abundance of wise advice or life experience to share in order to be a good friend. I simply need to slow down and take the time to tell someone else, “I see you.”