I just read about SETI Institute’s Earth Speaks , where people are invited to write a free-form message to beings from places other than Earth. A researcher analyzed over nine hundred messages from sixty-eight nations, and found that the second most common sentiment, after “We are all humans of Earth,” was “Please help.”
For some reason, this really touched me. Life is hard. We all feel it. And in our hearts, we all want to feel better, to not hurt so much, and to live on a planet that is—and be surrounded by people who are—vibrant and bountiful and full of life. But we can’t—most of us, anyway—figure out how to do that. Yet in our hearts, despite whatever nationalism and jingoism we might cling to in order to feel part of a tribe, we really all—deep down—understand that we are in this together.
This morning, I was getting salad from a salad bar for a week’s worth of lunches, and an older woman pushed her cart past me, proclaiming “This salad bar is AWFUL!! It gets worse every day! They don’t even have salad dressing!” When I tried to show her where the salad dressing is usually kept, I found that she was right: there was no salad dressing. I asked a store worker to get some, but by then, the woman had rolled on past and was haranguing another customer with her salad bar complaints (“I wish the salad bar was like it used to be!”). By the time I got my salad and dressing, she was gone.
I was irritated by her, irritated to be confronted with someone else’s discontent so early in the morning, as my first human interaction. I felt myself start to feel her angst, to take it on to myself. At the same time, I felt self-righteous, as I asked the guy to get me some salad dressing and he placed it in the container where it normally goes, I felt like finding the lady and telling her that she only had to ask, she needn’t just complain to complete strangers about how terrible her life was. Why not look on the bright side? But of course, my self-righteousness was another way to feel superior to her, as her discontent was a way to feel self-righteous and in control. We were both in the same boat, or in the same shopping cart, anyway.
I never did find her, and the interaction soon faded in my mind. But when I read about the SETI messages, it came back. The woman was saying “Please help,” as are all of us when we lash out in any way, whether in anger, jealousy, disappointment, fear, or hurt. We’re just trying to feel better. We can have compassion for ourselves and for others in these situations of hurt, even if we don’t understand what is at the root of their—or our own—pain. We can practice opening in compassion and love rather than shrinking back in fear or anger, or lashing back.
A technique from nonviolent communication is this: when someone is angry or complaining, rather than arguing or lashing back or withdrawing or walking away in discomfort, ask them “What do you need from me right now?” This can short-circuit the hurt and get to the root of the problem, which is most often that the person needs comforting. And when we are the ones doing the lashing out, we can use the discomfort of our emotions as a signal to look deeper within ourselves and ask ourselves, “What do I need right now?”