Each day we are with other people. Some we know, most we don’t. In shops, on public transport, wherever we go, we deal with people. Some of them are nice, others may be a bit irritable and testy. Or perhaps rude or distracted. I often wonder if they are dealing with secret sadness. Maybe one of them has been diagnosed with terminal cancer, or have a loved one who has. Maybe another one has had to deal with the infidelity of a partner, chronic pain, loss of their job, death of a loved one, or divorce. Not everyone wears their heart on their sleeve. The most you could notice would be that they are quieter than usual, or eating more or less than they normally do.
These are the people who, when times are tough, withdraw. They roll into a tiny ball inside themselves and try to make themselves invisible to make the pain go away, or cut ties and let themselves drift away from the world. These are the people that, if they should get to the point where they end it all, it is said about them: ‘She was fine. There were no indicators that she was this desperate’. The thing is, there were, but people probably didn’t pay any attention because the expectation is that troubled people will talk about their problems, wail and cry, or tell their nearest and dearest that they cannot cope.
Many people are talkers but not listeners. I think we should be listeners more often. And if you are a talker, be silent for long enough that a person with secret sadness can get those feelings out. It often takes time and a few questions that show you are interested and that you really care.
I recently met an old lady on the bus. She was beautifully dressed and made up, and her hair was beautifully done. I helped her lift her parcels so that she could sit beside me. She said to me ‘don’t get old’. I smiled and said ‘my grandmother used to say that’. She asked me how old my grandmother was when she said that and I said about 79. My seat-mate said to me ‘I am 93 you know’. I said to her ‘oh that is wonderful!’ And she said to me ‘no it isn’t. All my friends are dead. All my family is dead. My son is 70 years old and he has his own family. I am so lonely and I am sad. I can’t wait for my life to be over’. She didn’t say it in an angry tone, or a miserable tone, just resigned. If I had not spoken to her I would not have known about her secret sadness. I would have seen a sprightly elderly woman who had a happy face for the bus driver and for me.
So today, if someone snaps at you or is irritable or a little quieter than normal – think ‘they may be suffering from secret sadness’ and give them a warm smile, bring them a cup of coffee or show them kindness in a myriad of tiny ways. You may even want to ask them how they are and take a moment from your busy life to stop and really listen. You may reach a frightened soul curled into a tiny, scared ball inside themselves and give them warmth and hope.
I try to ‘see’ people. If I say no to giving money to a homeless person, I look them in the eye when I tell them. I don’t put my head down and pretend they are not there. I wish the supermarket cashiers a nice day or thank them, also looking them in the eye. I give students small compliments and remember to ask them how their child is if I know they have been sick. I remember pets’ names and birthdays. I send random cards to friends to tell them I am thinking about them. Because I know how much it means when people do that for me. A tiny gesture can make a huge difference when you have had an awful day.