I was sitting outside the car wash waiting for my Buick to emerge. The guy next to me on the waiting bench reeked with sociability. "How ya' doing," he quipped.
"Okay, except our dog just died," I said, since I was full of that sad reality. It was more than I needed to say, since this was destined to be a one-time, fifteen-minute relationship. But I said it, in part, to keep the encounter from total superficiality.
"Oh, I've been through that," responded my new best friend. And he didn't stop with this bit of non-empathy. For the next quarter-hour, I listened to him about the demise of his two dogs, all the details, from top to bottom. Then his van was announced "ready" and he walked away. "See ya'," he said.
I was the hurting party, with fresh bereavement. He was a veteran of long-past losses. I had cracked the door of lament open, but he walked in, paying no attention to my concerns. I was the patient — but instead of being treated as such, I was being asked to become the doctor — to attend to HIS hurts.
Sensitive people must bite their tongues even when they are dying to spill their own thoughts. It is the most natural thing in the world to jump over to your own memories when another's triggers a recall of something similar. Stories evoke stories. But caring people diligently refrain from stealing another's spotlight. They know that if "Bob" brings up either a sorrow or a joy, Bob is asking to be heard — not to have the tables turned so that he has to listen while you share.
This is Cardinal Rule #1 in being a caring friend: Resist mightily the strong temptation to discontinue tuning in to another's story in order to tell your own.