Last week, a freshman boy fell out a fourth-floor window and spent the night in the hospital. Later in the week, another sexual assault survivor felt the sting of the college dropping her Title IX case, and countless other survivors walked through campus feeling the pressing fear of knowing that their assaulter still walked the same halls and spent their nights in the oppressive closeness of this small, quiet campus.
But countless others, like me, do not know the freshman boy or the victim of our now-well-publicized sexual assault case. Although I was in Old Kenyon when the boy fell, I was in another part of the dorm and did not hear the thud of a body on the ground or witness the disfigured, motionless body that sent many tearful students into the arms of friends, chaplains, and safety officers. And, although I have friends who have suffered sexual assault, I have never experienced it myself.
At moments like these, I do not always know what the appropriate response is. How do you suffer with people without encroaching on their suffering? How do I comfort someone without imposing myself? Most significantly, am I allowed this strange, awkward sadness that comes from hearing about tragedy that has little to do with me, save from occurring on the same campus? Am I justified to feel with people whom I don’t know?
The answer is yes. Yes, we should feel for, and with, members of our community who are hurting. We should listen to the fears and insecurities. We should look for the dark places in Kenyon, and pull others out of them. We should start asking why, and how, so many members of our community are depressed, or violent, or afraid. Even, and especially, if we have little experience with their fear.
But how? I’m no expert by any means. But I have lived through the death of a parent; I have locked my door to gunshots outside; I have wondered how I will pay for things other college students can take for granted. I know what has worked for me when my friends have stood alongside me in suffering.
The first thing that works: listening. This seems obvious, but it is also strangely rare. The most difficult part seems to be listening without any sort of bias or opinion. If someone (or a whole community) is hurting, you can listen to them even if you don’t understand how they’re feeling. In fact, you can acknowledge that you don’t understand how they’re feeling; not because their feelings aren’t justified, but because you’ve never experienced their situation.
The second thing that works: asking questions. The best question to ask anyone: “How can I help?” Can I sit with you until you feel like you can sleep? How are you holding up? Even more basically, you can ask, “Do you want to talk about it?” And they might not want to talk about it now (or ever), and it’s not our job to fix it or force it out. If you’re talking to someone directly involved, practical solutions or even company can be valuable. Offer to walk with them to Campus Safety, give them a ride to the airport, or bring them dinner in their room if they can’t take being in public. And even if you don’t know someone well, you can say, “I’m so impressed by how strong you are.” I wish I could say that to so many people here at Kenyon.
In fact, I wish there were a guide to talking to others about painful subjects about which we know. If there was, I would certainly give it to you. But, in a sense, talking at all is the guide. I wish we didn’t have to rush people to the hospital; I wish people didn’t have to fly home because a loved one died; I wish Kenyon was a place where sexual assault and emotional abuse didn’t happen. But until the end of suffering, we can only respond with compassion and action. It’s not a perfect solution, but it is a solution within our capabilities.
Image Credit: Lena Mazel