Imagine a man dressed in rags and standing ankle-deep in snow, shivering in the gale blasting from a winter sky and peering through a window into a warm living room. On the other side of the glass, a man wrapped in a bathrobe sips hot chocolate and gazes curiously at the visitor outside his window.
“I have a question,” says the man in the bathrobe, speaking loudly enough for the man in rags to hear through the glass. “Would you please describe exactly how it feels to be cold?”
If you were the man in rags, how would you answer? Words like icy and frigid are meaningless to someone who has never felt cold, and adjectives like horrible and painful are too vague.
If you’ve never been severely depressed, I’m afraid I can’t describe it any more than the man in rags can tell the man in the bathrobe what cold feels like. The best explanation I can give is that depression is like lying on the very bottom of the ocean. Everything is cold and dark, and a suffocating pressure makes the simplest action ten times more difficult.
Not long ago, I read an article in which the writer described his struggle with depression, insecurity and suicidal thoughts. He has my utmost sympathy. If I ever met the man, I’d offer him a cup of tea and tell him how much I admire his courage in getting out of bed every morning.
Some of the people who commented on the article had other ideas.
“Depression. Who needs it. I say, if you’re upset and sad then own it.”
“Depression eh? Been there, done that years back. A large part of it is physical. My recommendation, eat fruits and veggies … Get some exercise … Join a gym.”
“You are what you are, you seem to accept you have issues, work on them and things will get better.”
The writer made himself vulnerable, confessing his personal struggles. Some of his readers responded by telling him, You’re obviously getting it wrong, so let me show you how to get it right. More vegetables! Better attitudes!
I suspect many of these readers are like the man in the bathrobe. They see, but they don’t understand. They look through the window at the man in rags, but they can’t begin to imagine how it feels to be cold.
To my relief, some of the people who commented on the article took a more compassionate approach.
“Thanks for sharing … Hopefully you’re also able to disregard all the ‘advice’ comments from people who don’t actually know what you’re going through.”
“I hope you win your battle. I have to say, I don’t understand it at all, but I know it seems to be very real for many people.”
“In a world filled with selfish, lazy, disgusting, and greedy [obscenities] that make all of us lose hope in the world, it is people like you that give me the strength to live on. Thank you for sharing a bit of yourself with us.”
Which kind of comment do you think the writer of the article found more helpful?
I need to make one thing very clear—advice can be compassionate, useful and awesome. In many circumstances, it’s the best thing you can offer. Advice can be a powerful, practical gift, even to people who may not want to hear it.
The reason I’m writing this blog post is that, in many circumstances, advice isn’t the best thing you can offer. It’s the worst.
In most cases, the person giving advice genuinely wants to help. However, there are times when advice—even wise, honest, well-meaning advice—isn’t helpful. Those who are humble, brave and honest enough to confess their struggles and mistakes deserve compassion, not lectures. If lectures must be given, compassion must come first.
What’s the best way of figuring out whether or not to give advice? In my experience, it’s one question.
Will this advice actually help this person?
If not, it’s probably best not to give it.
That’s my advice, and I hope it helps.
Awesome perspective. I’ve found that more often than not, a struggling person seeks not advice, but simply companionship. Solid advice may stem from various interactions, but at the core of that advice is the invaluable reassurance that the struggler is not alone. When I’m struggling with depression or plenty other issues, that’s all I really want: someone to listen, someone to hug me, someone to remind me I’m not at all alone.