Yesterday I got an text from a university student which said "I am afraid I can't help you.... I hope you will understand."
The "..." was her explanation of why she had decided
not to help me. It was reasonable enough, understandable enough.
But I am wondering today how she really felt. She used the words
"afraid" and "hope". These gave me hint, but
I think there is something more.
I started thinking "What does it really mean when someone says something like "I'm afraid I can't help you." Is it really fear they are feeling? And, if so, is it the fear of not being able to help you or the fear of your reaction? If I were to say "I am afraid of getting lost if I go into the caves alone." it is clear what the person is afraid of. They are afraid of getting lost. But if they say "I am afraid I can't help you," what are they really afraid of? Is not helping you dangerous for them in someway?
I remember once I helped a mother find her child in a park near a lake. I had been riding my bike along the path. She was almost frantic and called out to me: "I've lost my child! Please help me!!"
What if I would have said, "I'm afraid I can't help you because I have to get to work" ? Would it be the fear of helping her or the fear of being late for work that I was feeling?
Then what if I said "I hope you understand"? Would it have been something like a hope that she forgave me, or more of a fear that she might feel resentful and judgmental of me for not helping? Or might I felt guilty for not helping? It is interesting to me how we use words, especially emotional words.
I wonder how I would have felt if I had seen her again and I had not stopped to help her, I suspect I would have felt not only guilt, but shame. I probably would also again fear that she would feel resentful towards me -- remembering that I was the person (or one of the people) who didn't help her. What if I later found out that a boy had fallen into the lake that day and drowned? And then a few days later I saw her? Surely I would feel even more guilty. And more afraid she would resent me.
Probably, if I saw the woman, knowing a boy had drowned that day, I would avoid her. Avoid talking to her, avoid eye contact. I would probably feel at least a little guilty about it for the rest of my life. But even if I hadn't read that a boy had drowned, I might still avoid her. I might be afraid to ask her if she found her boy.
Also, I would probably also be afraid to ask her how she felt about me not helping her. In our society, few people would ask such a question. The reason they wouldn't ask is because they are afraid of the answer. But I believe such questions, and honest answers, are essential to our healthy relationships.
As it stands now, I suspect the girl who told me she was afraid sh couldn't help me is feeling guilty and afraid of me feeling rejected, discouraged etc. She is a sensitive girl who I had helped two days before by listening to her. I have just met her this week. I met her at the university when she gave a presentation in a English department contest. She had felt depressed over the score she was given. I felt connected to her when we talked about it. I felt understood and I believe she felt understood also.
Now I am not sure how she is feeling. I don't know if I will show her this or not. I am curious how she will feel, but also a little afraid she will feel defensive if she reads this. At this point though there doesn't seem to be a lot to lose because it sounded like she wasn't planning on talking to me again anyhow. She didn't say anything encouraging like "But I will keep telling my friends about your project." I am actually very curious how she really feels because she had told me one of her classmates was interested in the project and might want to talk to me. She also said she would talk to someone in a student organization here. I don't know if she still plans to do that or if she meant to say she wasn't going to do anything else at all to help, but she still feels supportive of the project, or, if she no longer does. I don't know if she would encourage someone else to help me or discourage them from helping. I really don't know these things and the not knowing cause me some discomfort. This project is important to me and it has so far been impossible to find anyone reliable to help.
I also don't know if the student has any desire to keep in contact or to stay friends. I don't know if she sees any value in me or my friendship. I feel a little "disposable" and "easily forgotten". I feel unimportant, almost insignificant to her. If she would have asked me how I felt, rather than just saying she hoped I understand, I might have told her I felt very discouraged. I might have also told her that when I got her text I had been feeling very depressed. She might have then asked why and I might have told her. Then she might have felt some empathy and compassion and I might have felt somewhat cared about.
I was starting to write "I 'hope'they will one day teach students better ways to express and communicate their feelings," but then I decided I will state it another way. Let's say, I am doing what I can to help people see the importance of these things like how we communicate and how we build or destroy relationships. I would like to see these things be taught. My desire motivates me to keep working to see the results I would like.
Saying it that way seems more positive, more constructive than just saying "I hope...."
Something else I wanted to say. I would have felt more cared about if she would have called me rather than just sending the text message. By sending a text message ending in "I hope you will understand," the communication door is closed. It signals the end of the discussion. It doesn't invite a response.
In fact, I didn't respond at all. I feel bad about not responding because I suspect she also feels bad and she fears that I felt very discouraged. I had told her I felt discouraged when another classmate of hers told me she couldn't help me either. She probably remembers that. But I didn't know what to say if I responded. Do I just say "ok"? Do I say, "Thanks anyhow?" Do I say "good luck on your overseas program and exams"?
I suppose Daniel Goleman and David Caruso would say that an emotionally intelligent response would be to say something like "Good luck...." and to try to sound sincere. In this way I would keep the mood positive etc. and leave the door open for having a pleasant conversation if I were to see her again in the hallway or on the street. But I can't and don't want to be so fake with my feelings, just to try maintain good "public relations."
Actually, in way, I do want to be able to say "Thanks anyway and good luck..." but I'd want to say it sincerely. The problem is that it hurts too much to keep hearing something like "I'd like to help you but I have to study." I have been hearing this for several years now. I am starting to judge myself for continually trying to get university students to help me. In other words I am starting to think I am not learning fast enough that they just aren't the right ones to seek help from. Yet many times when I first meet them and tell them about my ideas, they often give like my ideas and give me a feeling of hope. It is only later my hopes are crushed when they tell me they are too busy.
Sometimes they say they are sorry. But yesterday she didn't even say she was sorry. The only emotion words were "afraid" and "hope." If she would have asked me how I felt, and I told her, then I might have asked her how she really felt. If she had she she felt bad, guilty and afraid of me feeling some ill will against her, I might have asked her what would help her feel better. Or she might have asked me what would help me feel better. But we aren't taught to think like this or communicate like this, and I definitely can't blame her.
Right now I would like to help her. I would like to help her learn something valuable from this. So probably I will show it to her. I might even ask her to discuss it with her friends and write me back if she wants.
In case she is interested in what would help me feel better, I would have felt better if ]
- I knew she still wanted to keep in touch - She still felt supportive of the project. - She had told me she would still try to find the contact information for the other student organization. - She had said she will encourage her friends to help me.
By the way, just saying "Good luck" or "Best wishes" or "All the best" etc. doesn't help me feel much better. In fact recently someone who was helping me a bit with the project and then changed her mind said "All the best" and "Have a good day." After she sent me emails or texts which discouraged me. She also did not ask me how I felt or invite me to respond. And I haven't responded and I don't plan to because I don't feel enough by that person. As I see it, if she valued me or our friendship, she would ask me how I feel or make some effort at repairing the damage done by her not helping me in my time of need.
This reminds me that a hostel manager asked me if something were very important when I told him about a problem. He had said he would have it fixed the next day, but then he added, "Is it very important that it be fixed today?" I really appreciated him asking that question. This showed me that he was interested in my feelings. Since it wasn't important I said "No, tomorrow is fine." And I was sincere. But this project is important to me and my need for someone to help me is greater than my need to have the problem resolved in the hostel.
In a healthy relationship we consider both what is important to us and what is important to the other person. Then we discuss things and try to reach mutually satisfying compromises or solutions. Our desire to invest the extra tme to do this is also a function of how important the relationship is to us. If a friendship or any kind of relationship is important to us, we will be more interested in how the other person really feels.
Relationships with people are important to me. I suspect they are more important to me than they are to most people. Most people wouldn't take the time to think about something like this as much I have just done. Most people wouldn't bother to write about it or post their thoughts on a website so it can help others. This is one of the many things which frustrate me about our "modern society."
I feel sad for the students I met the other night. They have all worked hard to learn English. Along the way they have been required to memorize a lot of things which won't help them much in their lives. And they haven't been taught a lot of things which would be much more helpful.
The more time I spend with university students, the more I see how few people really care about them. Most of the university students I have met in Romania, for example, haven't even been taught how to type. They just type with a few fingers, pecking away like the students in South America. No one cared about them enough to teach them, or even encourage them to learn. I have also visited some of the student dormitories they live in... that is a whole other story... but I will just way they range from terrible to leaving much to be desired. The university administration obviously doesn't care much how the students live. I think it is safe to say that the university administration doesn't care much if the students get divorced 10 or so years from now either. I asked one student if she thought any of her professors would cry if she killed herself and she said, "No." A lot of the professors don't even know the names of their students here, even in the smaller classes (for example under 30).
Well, that is my report from Romania for today. See you next time.
S. Hein Targu Mures, Romania May 3008
Additional notes - We did find the woman's child that day. He was fine and she was very appreciative.
Also, if the student had felt what I suspect she felt, i.e. guilty and afraid I would feel bad, and she realized it and labeled her feelings specifically, it might have helped her do something which would have helped her feel better and also me feel better. As it stands now she will probably keep feeling bad about it, especially if she sees me again, and I will also keep feeling bad about it. As I think about it now I really can't think of anything that will help me feel better, except maybe to learn from it and to teach others something. Maybe it will help someone else. I really don't know. When I started writing on this site I didn't know what would help people and what wouldn't. I know that thinking about things in a lot of detail has helped me become more aware, more sensitive, more empathetic and compassionate. And I know I get a lot of thank you letters, but beyond that I really don't know.