People Suck During a Crisis

This is the third post in a series. Click here to go to the index page.

It’s a tremendous truism to say that you find out who your real friends are in times of hardship. A better way I’ve seen this put by a friend of mine is that people suck during a crisis. It isn’t just a matter of being a faithful friend or of who does and doesn’t stick around. A lot of people, maybe most people, generally don’t know how to respond when someone else is going through a really difficult part of their life. Even those you count as close friends can drop the ball, not to mention the ones who may wind up doing worse.

While my partner sat in the hospital dealing with her brain injury, there were a couple people who reached out to me regarding other issues. I considered both these people, male and female, to be friends. One of them I’ve known for a little over a year, although the other one is someone I’ve known for several years. They each asked if I would be interested in participating in something they were working on. I said I regrettably could not, due to what was going on at the time.

The surprising thing to me was that both of these folks reacted almost as if they didn’t hear or see the reason I gave for being unavailable. Neither one of them offered their condolences, asked further questions, or asked if I needed anything. Granted, I wasn’t all that detailed in the answer I gave, but it was enough that it seems like it should’ve at least prompted some minimal level of concern, especially from people I’d known and interacted with for some time. It hurt, and felt like I was seen as important only in how I could be useful to them.

I had some pretty hurtful experiences with Danielle’s family at the time, too. But the difference is that that was expected, since there’s always been tension there, and it just will exacerbate things when we’re all having to watch a loved one suffer. I understood that more than friends not being there for me, and those difficulties with the family have mostly been forgiven.

I also understood the heated exchange I had with a co-worker at the time when my partner had just started recovery. I asked a sincere question that this person interpreted as me telling her how to do her job, and, even as I tried to reconcile things, the explosion that resulted didn’t seem like it could’ve been prevented. It poked enough of a nerve in me that I couldn’t hold back the tears at work. Later, I found out that she had been catching a lot of flack lately from others in the office who didn’t want to put up with the task she’d been assigned to hand out. My co-worker didn’t know what was going on with me, nor did I know what had been going on with her.

Coming back to the title of this post, the reality is that everyone sucks in times of crisis. Not every time, no, and some people are definitely better about responding than others. But each one of us fails at one time or another. I don’t believe it’s just an issue of extending ourselves too far, or of having too much competing for our attention at once. We don’t like to face the ugly truth of what often goes on around us.

In the previous entry of this series, I talked about how trauma disrupts our lives. That’s true even for those of us who aren’t directly affected by it. We don’t just put ourselves into daily routines, but we spend so much of our lives creating and maintaining a vision of what we want them to be. This picture inevitably includes constructions of meaning, happiness, hope, and value. When someone else comes along whose life is in real turmoil, it raises problems with the picture we have of a harmonious relationship between ourselves and the world.

My friend who told me of this way she thinks about people’s behavior in tough times told this to me while I was in the midst of dealing with my partner’s injury. Recently, though, she has had traumatizing events in her own life, one after another, and in relatively quick succession. I jokingly compared what she’s going through to the story of Job from the Bible. And what’s interesting about this comparison is how Job’s friends respond to his suffering in the story. Even though they comfort him, all of them incorrectly assume Job is being punished by God because he’d done something wrong. None of them are willing or able to give up their preferred, comfortable picture of how the world works.

I feel it’s important, though, to note that this isn’t usually a conscious, selfish thing we do where we suppress or avoid the awareness of other people who disrupt our vision of life. Human beings are adapted for survival, but that doesn’t mean we do particularly well psychologically when confronted with things that threaten us. The evidence suggests that quite the opposite is true in many cases, as when suffering and trauma may cut us off from loved ones, family, communities, our beliefs about the world, and other sources we typically turn to in order to make sense of our lives.

The lines we draw that single out friends, family, acquaintances, and so on are not hard and fast distinctions. They’re only as good as what is put into them. They bend easily against certain things like trauma. It’s a challenge to truly come to grips with this and to forgive people in recognition of it. It’s much easier to imagine what you would do differently in their shoes, to remain planted in hypothetical scenarios where you come out feeling much more important than you do from the way you’ve been treated.

If any of this sounds negative or bitter, let me be clear that the point isn’t to wallow in hurt feelings. I think this idea – that people suck during a crisis – is an expression that serves as a helpful reminder to adjust our expectations realistically rather than letting them be dictated by what we hope will happen or by the emotions we experience in moments of distress.

On the other hand, this doesn’t excuse the behavior of others. It’s a method of self-care, as I see it, and not a justification for the shitty ways that certain people act. Knowing what to expect can help soften the blow of some painful things. It can also remind us of the need to act with courtesy, love, and compassion, out of the desire to be treated in such a way ourselves. If the lines we draw between the types of people we have in our lives are only as good as what is put into them, we need these reminders to do our part. That’s at least a far more effective and praiseworthy approach to finding your own sense of confidence and importance than merely imagining you’d do better than those who’ve wronged you.

People might suck during a crisis, but they’re frequently the first place we turn to in times of need. Just the presence of another person can make a world of difference when it matters most. Having someone who will listen, be a shoulder to lean on, or offer to help in any way they can feels like such a simple thing, but it’s also a more meaningful and powerful thing than many other ways we process trauma. That probably has a lot to do with why it sucks so much when we feel let down by those around us, as well as why, in spite of the pain, we return to seek human connection time after time.

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