By Mark E. Smith
In 1995, I opened a book preface with the line, “There’s no challenge more or less significant than another; merely different.” And, in the many years since, that line has remained with me, with my understanding that empathy and compassion are two of the most sincere traits that we can possess. See, what I’ve learned through my own challenges and struggles is that while no two people or struggles are the same, challenges and struggles effect most individuals at some point in life – often at several points in life – and although the origins of challenges and struggles vary greatly, their impact is universal, requiring all of us in moments of desperation to find an inner-strength to step back from the ledges we find ourselves on. And, when we’ve stood on the ledges of life – on the verge of slipping off, falling off, jumping off – we know how tough it is for others in those situations, where we naturally reach out to them in their moments of harrowing need. Through our own vying, we recognize first-hand that no one should have to climb the mountains of life alone, but that everyone deserves a patient guide to support them along the way, to reassuringly say, Step back from that ledge, my friend – you’ll get through this.
When you live successfully with disability – and, dare I say, honestly, where you don’t portray life as perfect, but as simply survivable, regardless of challenge or struggle – it is inevitably clear to others that you’ve been to the ledge and back, gaining wisdom along to way. After all, if one is struggling, one can relate with someone who’s obviously struggled, too – and there’s a sort of reassurance in seeing that another has somehow made it through the tougher times in life, mountains climbed, scars earned, wisdom gained, and ledges safely passed.
When you put these perspectives together – those who are facing life’s challenges and struggles, with those who have struggled and survived – an amazing bond can occur, where it’s two people communicating and sharing on the most genuine levels, climbing the mountains of life together. And, such shared emotional ascents are among life’s most magical interpersonal experiences, the best of friendships.
The fact is, many are too often alone in facing their challenges and struggles – and it is scary, isolating, and debilitating. What’s even worse is when one discusses one’s challenges and struggles with someone who hasn’t “been there,” and ends up being judged, lectured, and ridiculed – harmful feedback that can only make one feel more defeated, pushing one farther out on the ledge. But, when there’s a true mutual understanding between two people – I’ve been through the ringer of life, and know what it’s like, so let me be here for you now in your time of need – real support and solutions occur. We share, we listen, and we build trust – that is, we create the foundations of truly the most meaningful, supportive, healing relationships in our lifetimes.
And, when we’re in need, with such an empathetic, compassionate friend in our midst, the outcomes are life-changing: We can exhale our true feelings, we can open ourselves up in a safe place, we can explore our emotions, we can express true wishes, and we can just be – yes, at last, just be. When it all comes together, it’s not just a friendship that’s life-sustaining, but can actually be life-saving – conversations that allow us to restart living.
Providing such genuine support to another should be a given by any of us who have faced challenges and struggles, knowing how others could – or did – make a difference when we were standing on the ledge, about to slip off, to fall off, to jump off. However, both friends must realize that these times are intensely interpersonal. And, when such friendships are in true effect, there’s a mutual exchange of gratitude, where both individuals truly embrace each other, hands stretched out to each other, clinging. Of course, one of the individuals may obviously be in far more emotional need in the moment than the other – standing on the ledge looking down – but this doesn’t preclude a demonstrated deep appreciation and mutual respect for the supporting member, as well. If someone’s truly there for us – when one extends one’s hand at those moments in life and says, Step back from that ledge, my friend – that’s such an amazing gesture, and let us be faithful enough to directly acknowledge the remarkable value in that type of genuine friendship.
As those who have faced life’s challenges and struggles, we know how tough they can be to overcome, especially alone. Yet, when we overcome them, we have an evolved empathy and compassion for others of such kindred spirits. Let us be there for others – without judgment, as unconditionally as possible. And, if we’re fortunate enough to have someone who’s there for us unconditionally – offering an open hand, drawing us back when we’re standing on a ledge – let us cherish that friendship and reciprocate. See, the goal in the best friendships is to not just top the mountains of life, but to top the mountains of life together, hand-in-hand.