There’s an ancient rabbinic commentary that I’ve been thinking about a lot lately. Two rabbis, great sages, are arguing about how one should comfort a friend in distress. One rabbi argues that a person should simply be with the friend in their distress, listening to them, letting them cry, not trying to change a thing. The other rabbi says, in effect: No, no. The best way to comfort a friend in distress is to cheer them up, whether by making them (truly) laugh or taking them to do something fun or uplifting, or distracting them from their sadness.

Each rabbi brings compelling arguments to support their points. And each shares examples of times they’ve used their approach, with great results.

So, how does the argument get settled? What’s the answer? I imagine that you, like me, wish we were given one! But the text ends right there, in the middle of the disagreement. It seems to be suggesting: there are two valid paths here. Both approaches have their place. I can no longer remember—and couldn’t find—the source for this text (my apologies), but it comes to mind for me frequently these days.

As someone steeped in the personal growth world, I’m much more inclined to have a kneejerk response like the first rabbi’s—to think that the way to be of support is to lend a listening ear, and just be with someone in their distress. But I can certainly think of counterexamples in my own life.

Once, when I was in the midst of a tough few months mothering a colicky baby, I called a friend in tears and shared my overwhelm and feelings of failure. That friend is a therapist. She knows and lives the value of listening to people in their tears. And she’s very comfortable doing that. But she didn’t do that on that particular day. She listened to me for about five minutes, said she was coming over, and then showed up at my front door wearing a truly ridiculous costume that can best be described as Madonna’s Blond Ambition Tour Meets Rugby Playing Sesame Street Character. Then she stayed for a while, rocked the baby, and kept the energy upbeat. It was such a surprise, such a hilarity, and such an expression of love, that it completely changed my mood. It did, in fact, cheer me up. Rabbi #2 approach.

I think about this principle in my relationship with myself, too. Sometimes, the way to respond to my own sadness or angst is to open up toward it, and to unravel it through journaling or a conversation with a good friend, to really dig into it. But sometimes, I choose instead to get absorbed in a word game on my phone, or call a friend and chit chat about other things entirely. Sometimes, that also has its way of working.

But the larger point I want to make today is not about dealing with upsets. It’s about how we can get caught up in our absolutes about how to do this or that, to think some single principle always applies when it comes to wellbeing, healing, personal growth. I am a part of the personal growth / self-help field, and one thing people in my field often do is state absolutes about wellbeing, relationships, healing and so on. The absolutes are many: “Prioritize self-care.” “Feel your feelings.” “Focus on gratitude.” “When someone is upset, just be with them, don’t try to change how they feel.” “Do work you are passionate about,” and so on.

For each of these absolutes, there are counterexamples. If you have a family member who is at the end of life, maybe, for a while, self-care doesn’t get prioritized and that feels really right because it gives you more time with them. Maybe you aren’t ready to “feel your feelings” about some difficult thing just yet—and your psyche will let you know when it’s time.

Sometimes, or for some of us, focusing on gratitude is a great prescription, one that can help us find more joy and contentment. But for someone else, at another moment in time, focusing on gratitude might get mixed up with their pattern of suppressing anger or pain that deserves expression. Sometimes, doing work we are passionate about transforms our lives for the better. In other situations, doing work that feels mundane is fantastic, because it allows time for hobbies or relationships to take center stage.

It can feel a little scary—or very scary—to let go of our absolutes. Thankfully, I don’t think we need to let go of all of them. In my own life there are touchstones that I find to be pretty reliable absolutes: Find a path of love. I/we can turn toward a power greater than ourselves for support and guidance. Connection is good. But, at the same time, I think we can love ourselves and each other more wisely, more fully, if we don’t default to our old absolutes so often. Because if we really look at the data of our lives, our true lived experience, often the answer that reveals itself is: it depends.

As I get older I notice that now more and more I say: it depends. I say it more in my own life, but I especially notice I say it more in answer to questions people ask in my courses and workshops. Where I used to give a single recommendation, now I’m much more likely to say, “It depends. Sometimes, this can be a great tool/approach for that kind of situation. And other times, this very different, near opposite approach can be the way forward.” At times I have also gleaned some of the patterns about what works when, but sometimes there is a lot of mystery to that. Especially in my work, it feels like a really strong form of integrity to say, “I’m not going to pretend there is one right answer to the complex questions that we grapple with. There is not.”

Sometimes, the answer is stretching out of our comfort zones. Sometimes, the answer is shoring up in what brings us comfort.
Sometimes, the way to get to a breakthrough is to work hard on the problem. Sometimes, the way to get to a breakthrough is to rest.
Sometimes, when we are lost, we need community. Sometimes, when we are lost, we need solitude.
Sometimes, the path forward is acceptance. Sometimes, it is endeavoring to make a change.
Sometimes, growth comes with sticking it out. Sometimes, growth comes in letting it go.

Let’s let life be as surprising, as varied, as dancing-in-motion-with-us as it really is.


Top photo by: Unma Desai

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