I’m Not O.K., You’re Not O.K.—and That’s O.K.

“We are all subject to the pain of loss, grief, sadness and even plain disappointment. But by talking to one another about it, we console. It is enough.”

Sylvia Boorstein
30 July 2021

I heard on the BBC World News that a supermarket chain in Great Britain now provides chaplains in their stores, available to meet with customers when they are shopping. In Leeds, the position is shared by a Buddhist nun, a Congregationalist and an ex-Hell’s Angel/now Methodist minister. There are, the report said, rabbis and imams in Jewish and Muslim neighborhoods.

I did not know whether to rejoice or despair. I thought, “Sure, that makes sense. Everyone shops, and everyone needs someone to talk to about what is meaningful to them, what touches their heart, what troubles them.” But I also thought, “What has become of us?” Are we, as Wordsworth said, “laying waste our powers” by doing nothing apart from “getting and spending” and never leaving the shopping mall? Or have we, more sadly, forgotten how to talk to the people we know? Have we all forgotten how to listen to each other, or even to ourselves, in a way that is meaningful?

I think there is a clue to listening in a way that makes communication meaningful. That clue, I believe, holds true in psychotherapeutic situations, in relationships with a spiritual teacher and in mindfulness meditation. I think it is a universal clue. It works everywhere. I have a story that points to this clue:

I was reading the morning newspaper on a recent trip to New York City from Philadelphia on the Metroliner express train and I found myself suddenly so overwhelmed by sad and frightening situations all over the world that I turned to the young woman next to me and said, “I need to take a nap now. Will you wake me in twenty minutes, please?”

“Yes, of course,” she said. Then she said, “Are you O.K.?”

“I’m O.K.,” I replied. “Are you O.K.?”

“No,” she said. “I’m not.”

Suddenly, my sleepiness was gone and she could tell I was alert and listening. “I read the news earlier,” she said, indicating the newspaper in my lap. “And I’m scared.” We talked. We talked some about politics, but mostly we talked about how hard it is to carry on in life as if you are fine when actually you are feeling frightened or hopeless. The more we talked, the more revived I felt.

Then, as I thought the conversation was ending, she said, “I’m worried about my job, too.” She had recently accepted a position she saw both as a validation of her skill level and a challenge to it. “I think I can do it. But this is a big deal, this meeting in New York. A lot could go wrong. I’m worried about not doing it well.”

I just listened. I didn’t need to be knowledgeable about her job. I just needed to listen. I thought about how we all have concerns for the world and concerns for ourselves, simultaneously. After we parted at Penn Station, I realized we’d never told each other our names. It didn’t matter. By connecting, we had consoled. It was enough.

The clue is, Are you O.K.?

None of us is. The Buddha explained that as the truth of suffering. Having been born, we are all subject to the pain of loss, of grief, of sadness or even plain disappointment. Life is difficult. Even our joys, in their temporality, remind us of impermanence. Like the French poet Villon, we lament, wistfully, “Where are the snows of yesteryear?” We know that all the yesteryears are gone.

Psychologists would also reassure us of the appropriateness of our “non-O.K.-ness.” Each of us carries the gifts of our heritage, our family and our culture, as well as its wounds. It can’t be otherwise. A psychologist friend of mind once said, “If you wanted it perfect, you came to the wrong planet.” I am imagining this understanding, tacit or spoken, as the cornerstone of all healing relationships.

“Are you O.K.?

“No. Not really. How about you?”

“Not me, either. But I’m O.K. to talk about it. It makes the journey less lonely. Let’s talk.”

And, we can talk to ourselves kindly. I tell mindfulness practitioners to listen to the tone their inner voice uses to comment on their experience. I ask them to consider whether, if they had a friend who spoke that way, they would keep that friend. The moment in which people discover they are not holding themselves in compassion, not speaking kindly, is often startling and always sad. That awareness is sometimes enough to cause the critic’s voice to soften, and the soother’s voice to be heard.

photo of Sylvia Boorstein

Sylvia Boorstein

Sylvia Boorstein is a psychologist and leading teacher of Insight Meditation. Her many best-selling books include Pay Attention, for Goodness’ Sake and Happiness Is An Inside Job.