It’s hard to look at the hard things in our lives.
I recently found myself carrying out a bit of informal research at a bus stop. On the same bit of pavement where I stood, I noticed, in a doorway, a homeless person under a sleeping bag. Around him or her was a small scattering of coffee cups, plastic drinks bottles and a few meagre possessions. The sleeping bag did not look cosy. As I looked carefully at this person, I found myself feeling sad.
Then I noticed the people walking past on the pavement, in the space between me and this person in their sleeping bag. I noticed that every person seemed to look directly at me as they walked past. This sparked my curiosity. Why was everyone looking right at me? I looked behind me and saw nothing of particular interest. I wondered if it was something about me.
I kept looking. I noticed that just before looking at me, at about 5 metres away, I saw every single person cast a lightning quick glance at the scene in the doorway. As they got closer, they looked away. They physically moved their heads and looked away. I happened to be in the direct spot where someone’s head would turn in order to look away from the homeless person.
I guessed that they weren’t looking at me. They were just not-looking at the homeless person. Totally understandable. It’s hard to look at. Or perhaps they were not-looking at something bigger: homelessness. Such a big thing. So hard to look at.
The hard things to look at
When I got on the bus, I began thinking about other things that are hard to look at. Difficult relationships at home. Family members who are unwell. Stressful work situations. Loneliness. Unhappiness with life. Exam stress. Abusive relationships. The death of a loved one. We know these things are present in our lives. We feel them. We live them. But do we sometimes look away from these things because they are too painful? Maybe we sometimes shy away from looking too closely because it feels like we are the only one looking and don’t know what to do? Perhaps we don’t look because we don’t know what we would do about it? And we remain alone in our sadness or pain.
If we begin to look carefully at the painful or difficult things in our lives, we might feel the despair, the rage, or the shame that comes when we look closely. Who wants to feel that? If we began to actually feel our despair deeply, we might start crying and never stop. Feeling our anger deeply, we might start screaming and never stop. I have actually heard people say those things to me in my counselling room.
We may momentarily look at the situations we find ourselves in, but it drains our energy when we think too much about them. They are too big. We may have a good moan over a glass of wine in the evening, but this changes little.
So perhaps we use the same tactic as the people walking past me and the homeless person. We look away. Then we glance at the problem. Our lightning fast brains then work out that we can’t really change anything. So we stop looking. It helps us to cope. We know it’s still there. But in the face of something that seems huge, intractable or insurmountable, we default to a survival strategy: look away.
It’s not as hard to look when we are with someone else
Just as with homelessness, there is rarely a simple cause and effect going on. Life can feel complex, unpredictable, uncontrollable, uncertain. When faced with something that seems so huge and complex, it is natural to feel overwhelmed. And we it can feel worse if we are trying to deal with it on our own. Where would we start to change things?
Even if we can’t change everything, we can start somewhere. Being with someone who listens carefully can be a start. Having another person gently ask questions can help. Knowing that there is at least one other person who will listen and not judge us can make a big difference.
So many of us look away from the hard things. Something is there, but we can’t see it very clearly. However, it needs looking at if something is going to change and if we are to feel differently about it. And doing this with another person can help it seem a little less hard.
This is what counselling and therapy can offer.