Saturday, 2 January 2016

The games people play and the mistakes people make

Sometimes people come to you in crisis. We're morally bound to respond in kind, right, to make sure that we match the crisis with a sterling, robust offer of help? The tricky thing is, it depends ...

I cannot tell you how often I have fallen for one particular game. Here're the rules:

[By the way, I am adept at both sides of this game, so I'm really describing myself all along ...]

X calls up: 'I'm bleeding and on fire; help! Help! I need fire-extinguishers! I need gauze! I need ...' I hear the 'here-come-the-cavalry' theme running in my head, and I rise to the occasion. I might be full of practical, homely advice; I might offer a more comprehensive solution, involving learning how to handle sharp objects and Bunsen burners. On a bad day, I get emotionally involved. Following hot on the tails of the heartfelt compassion come its stooges: irritation, bluntness, peremptory responses. (Remember: 'help is the sunny side of control!) We’re on the phone for hours. And I’m exhausted.

Maybe a day later, maybe a week later, I'm waiting poised, with my finger hovering over the Big Red Button of Assistance, ready to deploy the Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles of Sponsorship ... and I hear from them. And they're kinda fine. They've sometimes forgotten what the problem was. But one thing is clear: whatever that was, a true crisis it wasn't. And you've fallen for it again; all the words were written on wind and water, sound and fury signifying nothing.

The word ‘crisis’ originally meant ‘turning point’. A lot of what passes for crisis is actually Saturday Night at the Palladium. The curtain rises, and the show begins! ‘Send in the clowns … Don’t bother; they’re here.’

It is very easy to get sucked into a drama, thinking you're helping, when actually you're just the cat following the dot of light. The ego, somewhere, is laughing, although maybe not the person—he or she is usually unaware that this game is being played, because games, once brought to consciousness, are hard to play with a straight face.

It wasn't true assistance that was wanted: it was company, eating popcorn, eyes wide open, staring at the screen on which the drama was unfolding, with all the flashing lights, distorted sound, and excessive volume of the modern cinema experience.

So, how do you tell when it is help that the person genuinely wants, as opposed to someone to take the spare cinema ticket?

Here's a story. Clancy—at least I think it was Clancy—tells a story of Chuck C.—at least I think it was Chuck C.—who was approached by an AA member in profound, fulminating despair, full of suicidal threats. The response was this: 'I'm tied up for a few days. If you're still alive by Monday, come round to my place at 6.30, and we'll talk'.

The chap was, and did, and progress was made.

So, tips, are there any tips?

What is true is that occasionally the crisis is real and the cry for help is a cry for actual assistance; what it also helps to remember is that awareness of what might be going on should never tip over into cynicism or harden the heart; the last sine qua non is the maintenance of calm and kindness. As George Herbert said:

Be calm in arguing: for fiercenesse makes
Errour a fault, and truth discourtesie.
Why should I feel another man’s mistakes
More, then his sicknesses or povertie?
In love I should: but anger is not love,
Nor wisdome neither: therefore gently move.

I’m not going to give you an algorithm for navigating these situations, partly because you haven’t asked, and partly because I haven’t got one. But there are three tools to use, which can be thought of as ‘the three Ps’ (remember Al-Anon’s ‘three Cs’ and ‘four Ms’? Well: here’re the three Ps; and you can quote me on that).


Pausing because the Big Book (page 87, for the geeks) suggests pausing when agitated or doubtful (Ever get agitated? Ever get doubtful? Are you ever anything other than one or the other?!), reminding ourselves we’re no longer running the show (including their show), stating the wish that ‘Thy will be done’, and asking for the right thought or action. Pausing is my favourite tool and my most underused one. Although sometimes I do pause for so long people hang up, thinking the line has gone dead (like the Molvanîan actor whose dramatic pause was taken to be a sign that he had kicked the bucket and who was actually buried alive). My friend Tom suggests that we get one second of reaction time for every year of recovery. I’m therefore working on my 23rd second.

Praying is great. God is very, very big, and of above average intelligence. God is also not particularly interested in my take on how things should proceed, but I should definitely be interested in His. God’s will in many situations is the needle buried so deep in the haystack that it cannot be discerned by ordinary sight. The sixth sense—the common sense that becomes uncommon sense, per the Big Book—is required.

Postpone: this is a tool available, not the tool that will necessarily be required; but in any case it is rare that a solution is required this instant. Perhaps the postponement will be for half an hour; perhaps for a day or more; but the individual took decades getting where they are; a little caution, forethought, and postponement now won’t generally hurt.

Here are some postponement tools:
‘Let me think about this and get back to you [in a few minutes / in half an hour / later today / tomorrow / next Wednesday]’.
‘Try XYZ [perhaps suggesting pausing, praying and postponing], and let me know how you get on. We’ll talk again then.’

This last option is great because whether or not the action is taken is a good sign of whether it is genuine assistance or company that is being sought.

As usual, this year’s resolution is to practise the three Ps more assiduously than I have ever done before.

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