One of my running buddies is going through a rough patch. Sharon lost her mom a few months ago. They weren’t that close, but they were communicating better than they had been for years. Still, there was a great deal that they needed to say to one another before Sharon’s mother’s massive stroke. As if the loss of a parent weren’t enough, Sharon’s daughter moved back home even though Sharon’s daughter will be turning 30 next year. Nobody talks about the “elephant in the room.” But the elephant in the room could be Sharon’s daughter who is 80-something pounds overweight. Her social life as well as her health is negatively impacted by her obesity and lack of exercise. Sharon’s daughter is “looking for a job” but seems to spend rather a lot of time watching Netflix on her computer. In her room. Alone. Sending out for pizza after pizza.
Possibly worse of all, Sharon’s house was supposed to close this past week. But the deal fell through. The deal fell through four separate times. The buyer was supposed to qualify for a loan. But didn’t. Then the buyer was supposed to get some money from an inheritance. But didn’t. Then the buyer was going to get a new job so he could qualify. That didn’t work out either. It looks like the buyer is never going to qualify for a loan. Sharon is only somewhat philosophical: “It’s as if my feckless daughter and this ineffectual buyer both go to the same ‘Incompetents Anonymous’ meetings every week.”
Sharon needs the money from the sale of the house. She needs the money yesterday. Sharon is renting a two-bedroom apartment for herself and her unemployed daughter, but she is going to have trouble keeping up with the payments if she doesn’t sell the home. And her troubles don’t end there. Based on the sales contract for her old house, Sharon moved a bunch of furniture into storage. Another expense. And don't even ask about all the noise at the lousy apartment. The house was so much nicer. But all the furniture has been moved in anticipation of the closing. It’s a mess.
Sharon is possibly the nicest of our group. All of us are supportive and pleasant. Decency seems to be the only requirement for membership in the running club. As one of our newer runners put it some years ago, “David, you’re a nice guy; but compared to Sharon, you’re a fascist.”
At an ultra event, there was a deluge. A South Florida thunderstorm can come out of nowhere and dumped 17 million gallons of water per square mile. As a dozen of us huddled under a small tent, Sharon noticed that one of our group was still out on the course. Without a word, she took off into the monsoon to find our missing runner. Beyond thoughtful. Both she and our lost companion came back smiling from one side of the path to the other.
Sharon isn’t a complainer, but most of us in the running group feel terrible about her situation nonetheless. When the deal fell through for the first time, we were optimistic and encouraging. When the deal fell through for the second time, we were guarded and reserved. When the deal fell through for the third time, we were furious. We all knew the buyer was at best an idiot, more likely a crook. When the deal fell through for the fourth time, we were heartbroken for our good friend.
All of us were distraught except one. Alan had a completely different view. “No one has a neuroblastoma,” he began. “Sharon is in perfect health, ran a marathon last year. By feeling sorry for her, you infantilize her.”
The rest of us responded with one voice. “We want her to know we care, that we wish there were something we could do, that we understand how she’s feeling.”
“Then change the subject," Alan responded. "Let her know that she is completely capable of determining the course of her own life, that she is not defined by a real estate deal gone bad. She's going to be okay.”
Good advice. Sharon does have a lot to be thankful for. She is in phenomenal good health—frequently gets medals in the 55-59 year age group. Sharon has great friends, isn’t missing any meals. She’ll sell her house to someone else. Or she won’t. Either way her life will go on. Sympathy is one thing. Treating Sharon like a child is something else entirely.
I wonder if there is an analogy here for raising our beloved children. Listening, being sympathetic, understanding, yes. Telling our kids that their lives are terrible, not so much. Bad grade on a math test, rejected from a first choice college, flunking a driver’s test? Sorry to hear that. And then talk about something else. “I’m sure you’ll figure it out” and “let me know if I can help” are good attitudes to convey. Whereas, “Poor, pitiful you, I’m going to march right down to that school and tell your mean teacher how much you studied and that you deserve a better grade” may show support, but also convey, “you are helpless and I have to take care of you forever.” Which, I’m pretty sure, is not what you want to communicate.
This is a tough culture. Process addictions threaten our children. Idiots and crooks waste our time with bogus real estate offers. Setbacks—and worse—are everywhere. All loving parents want their children to know that they are cared for. Believe it or not, letting our beloved children triumph over obstacles with lots of support but not much pity is the way to do just that. “You’ll get through this” is a better message than “this is the end of the world.”
Your kids are more resilient and capable than you think. If you let them. And who knows? Your children may grow up to run marathons or head out into the rain to pick up an exhausted colleague.