The tragic demise of Sushant Singh Rajput has held the entire country in shock. As news reports of his loneliness and depression pour in, many of us are taking to social media platforms asking people to open up and talk to us if they are going through sadness or trouble. With Bollywood celebrities at its forefront, the “I am available” phenomenon has turned into a mini-movement, and given the challenges brought upon by the Covid-19 pandemic, it assumes all the more significance.
It is possible that many who post this publicly are sincere about it. It is also possible, as sceptics say, that this is merely an emotional reaction or even a petty opportunity to turn over one’s image in one’s circles. However, whatever be one’s motives, the question remains – are we really available?
It is no secret that globally, loneliness is increasing. Our lives are a strange mixture of hyper socialness – boosted by social media and mind-boggling advancements in communication avenues – and periods of acute loneliness. We know, more than ever, what and when and where our friends and family eat, wear, shop, work, study, party, holiday, and vote. But we know less of their worries, fears, insecurities, evolving personalities and attitudes, mental complex, and – surprise, surprise – real, un-Instagrammed joys.
Us millennials have the ultimate reason for this phenomenon – we are too busy pursuing our careers, and hence it is easier to stay abreast through a few quick scrolls on our smartphones. For us, work is Caesar’s wife, a sacred thing which fully justifies incomplete or unanswered calls and messages, long periods of silence, absences at important occasions, and fading away of relationships. We take pride in being busy, as if it is work that elevates our lives and gives it quality over everything else.
And honestly, it is acceptable to not be available, either out of life’s pressures, or due to our personality or mental makeup, and as individuals, we should be able to say so without being judged or shamed.
However, when we are available, virtually or really that is, the question still remains whether we are truly available with the space, patience and responsiveness required to heal a hurting mind. Being available for an aggrieved soul, for a large part, means being a good listener.
Thanks to technology, it frees one from the necessity of physical presence, but it demands much more. It demands genuineness, empathy, and articulate (not just intended) kindness. The concepts of genuineness, empathy and articulate kindness have been trivialised, chewed, and thrown around in popular parlance, especially regarding Emotional Quotients (EQs) and ‘soft skills’ in the workplace.
Listening is underrated, especially by those who are practical and solution oriented. With the best of their intentions, such people set their brains racing the minute the aggrieved person begins to speak, and come up with quick, and sometimes truly effective solutions. That is commendable, but it doesn’t constitute as listening. As someone who has learnt it gradually and painstakingly over the years, I can vouch for the fact that it is possible to be solution-oriented and a good listener at the same time.
Contrary to popular opinion, being available does not require a constant state of ‘being positive’. Most people who give generous doses of optimism to people in trouble or sorrow feel they are helping them, but that’s not always the truth. People have genuine problems and griefs, and simply giving them the “don’t worry, everything will be alright!” slice of wisdom is not going to soothe them. Rather, it is downright immature, shallow, and can be counterproductive.
Super-optimists and insufferably politically correct people avoid using words like “bad”, “painful”, “wrong”, “horrible”, “sad” and the likes, but acknowledging someone’s pain in these words validates their feelings. It also makes them realise they are not alone, there is someone who understands the pain, and truly sees why they feel so. This is important for the aggrieved person’s self-worth, and when we call a spade a spade, we actually help them take their first step towards healing, solutions, and optimism.
Listening well includes responding well. Being a good responder is tricky; not all of us have the tact, language command, tone or voice that can bring relief to others, but we don’t need to. Being responsive simply means conveying – explicitly – to the person that they have your thoughts and attention. Interrupting is a no-no, but dead silence with a stony stare isn’t exactly appreciable either. Gentle affirmations (the classic ‘hmms’ and ‘aahs’), short questions furthering the story, and sometimes, simply eye contact and nodding can also do the trick.
The worst kind of response which unfortunately is rampant is relaying our own experiences to the person expressing their grief to us. Frequently, we get carried away, and the aggrieved end up being the ones listening to our problems and experiences. While it’s okay to briefly mention our experiences and draw solutions out of it, spinning them into full-blown tales and grabbing all the footage is not only an insult to the aggrieved, but it is also narcissistic and crass. The person then, was better off without trying to confide in us.
As listeners to people who vent their griefs to us, it is our responsibility that we convey our empathy and kindness to them in the right manner. Cheeky arguments on the lines of “I am responsible for what I say, not what you understand” are plain nonsense, and reek of laziness and carelessness about communication.
That does not mean we have to listen indefinitely. Just as genuinely hurt and lonely people exist, so do cribbers and emotionally irresponsible ones. We have to pick and choose with a sensibility which some of us possess innately, while some develop over time.
Being a good listener constitutes a fundamental part of any relationship, personal or professional, and even though it is incredibly difficult, the results make it worthwhile. I can say this from my personal experience.
The month of April 2020 was disastrous for me in every sense. The lockdown brought unprecedented career and financial challenges, high risks of Covid-19 infections in the family, and the painful demise of our 5-year-old beloved pet cat. Locked in the claustrophobic gloom of the house, we prayed and grieved, but I was fortunate to have close friends, my husband and my mother who truly listened to me.
They were patient through my incoherence, they acknowledged my pain and told me, with affection and kindness, that they cared for me, as many times as I needed to hear it. They held back on their problems till I recovered, and once I did, they came to confide in me. Despite all the losses I faced in the past few months, this one, solid gain keeps me a happy person at heart.
I wish every hurting soul had such listeners. I wish Sushant Singh Rajput had such listeners. 14th June wouldn’t have been such a tragic day then.
(This post was first published here on The Tilak Chronicle.)
Gauri Noolkar-Oak is a transboundary water conflicts researcher and has studied river basins in the Middle East, Southeast Asia, and South Asia. She is also the Founder of Lokmaanya.
The views and opinions expressed in the above article belong to the author(s) and do not necessarily represent the official opinion, policy or position of Lokmaanya.