I was recently sitting at a makeshift outdoor bar with picnic tables assembled in a parking lot. At a table not too far from mine was an older man and middle-aged woman. I couldn’t hear the conversation, but I did notice the man listening carefully to his friend, often in silence for three or four minutes at a time over the course of an hour. It struck me as quite unusual, a level of concentrated attentiveness that I hadn’t really seen for some months. And it brought me back to an article I had read earlier that day, about the surprising increase in depression and suicide during this pandemic, especially among younger persons, the causes numerous: absence of physical community, increasing isolation, loss of direction and purpose, and the impact of deep, chronic stress often held in silence.
I had just been writing a friend that morning about the impact of heightened, unfamiliar long-term stress, much more common these recent months than was being acknowledged and explained. I used the term soldier’s heart, a phenomenon known during ancient times but more frequently acknowledged during the American Civil War: acute reaction to the long-term stress of battle involving deep fatigue, depression, slowed reaction time, confusion and indecision, among other symptoms. Interestingly, these symptoms parallel those attributed to compassion fatigue, prevalent among those who caretake loved ones or others for unusually long periods of time, often without relief or sense of a foreseeable resolution.
In both of these syndromes, and the subtler forms of them that we all encounter in different chapters of our lives, the breaking point often comes when there is no observable outlet for understanding. That is, no one who listens carefully.
Oftentimes, it’s not so much an immediate answer that someone is seeking to resolve persistent distress – frequently unrecognizable through outward signs – as much as the presence of someone who earnestly seeks to understand what they’re going through. That can be as simple as taking a little more time than usual to ask an additional question or two and leaning in to genuinely listen so as to open space for a real, revealing conversation.
As I was preparing to leave the parking lot picnic table, the couple near me got up, and the man left to pay the bill or use the restroom. The woman slowly wandered off toward the sidewalk, where she stretched her neck to each side, let out a long exhale and looked up at the sky. I thought to myself, “That conversation was really well done.”