It can, at points, seem horrifically clear that simply no one really cares. They barely notice our presence, they hardly stick around to listen to what we have to say, they catch none of our hints – and they are overwhelmingly preoccupied with their own projects and day-to-day concerns.
On the basis of such evidence, it is easy for us to fall into a large, damning and dangerously heart-breaking conclusion about our situation: that we are profoundly alone – far beyond any possibility of connection or empathy.
But the truth may be at once more mundane and rather more hopeful. Most of us humans are extremely keen to help when we notice an urgent need, but we are also continuously distracted, grievously taken up with our lives and unlikely to spot that there is anything at all the matter with people around us unless the problem is spelt out in the clearest, most unambiguous terms. Then, but only then, will we swing into action and bring the whole of our intelligence and will to bear on another’s pains. In other words, we respond well to screams, but terribly to hints.
The issue comes particularly to the fore in tragic cases where someone we know takes their own life. We are certain that we would, if we had known how desperate they felt, have done pretty much anything to help. At the same time, we also know that we didn’t enquire very much, didn’t look too closely for hints and must surely have given off an impression of constant busy-ness. We feel, understandably, entirely wretched and callous.
We would be wise to rehearse these facts about human nature without rancour or surprise when we are next at our most fragile and desperate. The apparent indifference of others truly is only apparent. We need to learn to scream. Sadly, we tend to lack any confidence to do so precisely when it would be most necessary, because a primal embarrassment takes hold of us around being in need, as if it was in the remit of any human to get through life by their own wits alone. Part of the tragedy of being desperate is how illegitimate our agony feels to us.
Yet we should never allow ourselves to forget that, whatever the surface indifference of others, we are surrounded by people who, when they see an emergency in front of them, will jump into icy rivers to rescue total strangers. If we know unambiguously that someone (even a casual acquaintance) needs us a lot right now, we will probably drop everything and run to assist. But at the same time, we are hopeless at reading minds or taking hints. The next time we are in trouble, we must remember not to hate ourselves for requiring help and should call out, hopeful in the knowledge that most people around us will respond to our pain once it reaches their ears. We need to remember to scream a little louder – and hate ourselves a little less.