I send a long and fond email to a very old friend. He’s facing up to some things just at the moment, so I think a lot about the tone. Tone is important. I suspect that people don’t want sympathy so much. The thing the men and women at HorseBack dread most is the pity face and I learned to put that away long ago, although I do still sometimes raise my eyebrows when they tell me a good getting blown up story. Sympathy sounds lovely, on paper, but in life it can be almost patronising. I like empathy better. But empathy has been hijacked by the welcome the abundance brigade, so I always feel like a real old charlatan whenever I write it down.
Anyway, I am British, so as I write the email I make jokes. I want my friend to know that I love him and I’m thinking of him and he is not alone. I can’t quite say that in some many words, which is why I make the jokes. That’s how it works. He can read between the lines. A bit of mild swearing is also useful. Sod ‘em all.
It’s the old saw of: you are not alone. People write a lot about the rampant individualism of the West, the out of control narcissism, the atomisation of society. I think this is a bit overcooked, but it has a grain of truth in it. Alfred Adler, my favourite of the psychologists, wrote a great deal about the importance of community. He believed that for the good life, you need to be stitched in to the human family. I think quite a lot about being part of something bigger than myself. On my more bonkers days, I believe I am a citizen of the world; on the saner days, I feel a little bit better about everything when I have a nice conversation with the ladies in the village shop.
So, when someone is going through it, I don’t say: poor you, or cheer up, or it will all be fine. I make a joke and say, either overtly or by implication: I know just how you feel, I am thinking of you, I can imagine what that is like. You are not alone.
It’s not magic beans. It does not fix anything. It will not miraculously transform a fraught situation. But as they used to say in The Big Chill: ‘you do what you can do.’
You dear Dear Readers did that for me yesterday, with your kind hearts. Thank you for that. It means a lot.