Timothy asked me the other day if there were other students in my program who were rooting for me to succeed. He assured me that he was cheering me on but qualified it by pointing out that he wasn’t really familiar with what being a graduate student was like.

While that is undoubtedly true, his comment got me thinking. Is he automatically disqualified because he hasn’t walked in my footsteps? I was reminded of Molly Piper’s series about comforting a friend through stillbirth. In many ways, her point is germane.

She writes, “When you want to say, ‘I can’t imagine,’ just try.” It’s true that a person may have never experienced the precise situation at hand. But is saying “I can’t imagine” meaning “I don’t want to imagine”?

I remember reading her post and being moved. I remember thinking that her words even helped me to want to enter into someone else’s grief. It’s been in the back of my mind as I’ve watched other friends experience very difficult trials.

I told Timothy that, to my way of thinking, there are three types of friends:
1) friends who have experienced the same thing… sympathy
2) friends who imagine the experience & strive to relate… empathy
3) friends who keep a distance because they don’t understand, don’t have the capacity to, or don’t want to… apathy

It’s true that he can’t be friend type #1. But he is friend type #2, and that matters a lot. In fact, the validation that comes with an outsider recognizing your pain and grieving with you can be more meaningful than someone who can say “been there, done that.”

For those of you like Timothy, imagine what it’s like. Take a moment to step into our shoes. Realize that our life is very complicated, so ask specific questions. The fact that you care and that you’re willing to take time to walk beside us means more to us than you can imagine.


10 thoughts on “Friends: Types?

  1. Just a few days ago in a graduate linguistics class we were trying to discern whether or not the meaning of “I can’t imagine” is literal or metonymic – are we actually not able to imagine? Or are we using ‘can’ as English speakers often do to mean refer more to potentiality than actuality? Okay. So that’s a lot of words. But really, what we decided is that it’s an awful thing to say due to the quality of the word ‘imagine’. To imagine means to stretch what you don’t know to fit into the patterns in your mind that you are familiar with. To say that you ‘can’t’ do this means that you’re either a) not a fully functioning human with language, b) you’ve never experienced anything ever, c) you’re lazy, or d)you haven’t thought of anything else to say. This answer, true to graduate studies in linguistics answered absolutely nothing that we were trying to answer, but was interesting nonetheless. I’ve always felt cheated when I’ve told people about my conditions and had them respond with “I can’t even imagine…” because by telling people a story, I am asking them to imagine it.

    1. Sometimes, a person like Timothy is genuinely recognizing that your experience is beyond his. (Other times, people are simply brushing you off.) But I think it’s important as friends to learn to imagine and to attempt to relate. That’s where you really show you care.

      We talk a lot about rhetoric in history graduate classes as well. I’m right there with you. Sometimes, discussion only leads to more confusion, but it can be a good exercise to figure out what we’re really feeling in our hearts.


  2. I am guilty of using the phrase ‘I can’t imagine’. I’m not a particularly articulate person, and often I express my concern and feelings by spending quality time (if possible) with those I care about and listening to their troubles. I can only speak for myself, but when I use this phrase I am not expressing that I don’t care or that I don’t want to try to understand what someone is going through. I can imagine the situation for a moment, most people can. However I know that I am limited to only putting myself in that situation while actively thinking about it. I cannot sustain the image for long periods of time and therefore really have no idea what someone is going through, when a situation or pain is ongoing and not temporary.

    After hearing how some people perceive this phrase I will definitely be careful in the future. Thank you for helping me see that this may not be the correct response when listening to a friends troubles.

  3. Thanks for mentioning my post here. I wish you every grace as you pursue grad school–one of the most challenging things I’ve ever done as well. Hoping for lots of #1 & #2 friends for you.


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