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A Little Happier: When Do We Tell Other People What We Think They Should Do? Two Beautiful Examples.

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I’m going to tell a story that’s related to happiness, but there’s a lot of sadness in this story, so if you don’t feel like thinking about a sad situation, you may want to skip this one.

One question I often consider is: What’s the right way to think about pointing out to people what I think they should do? Sometimes, it seems unhelpful, arrogant, and intrusive. But sometimes, it’s valuable. I’m always weighing the pros and cons. Should I try to give direction to the people in my life? Should I think I know the right answers?

As I often mention, I love examples of when people know the right things to say and the right things to do.

One particular example of this situation really struck me.

In his memoir Man in the Empty Boat (Amazon, Bookshop), writer Mark Salzman explains that he grew up in a family that was quite prone to anxiety and depression. He writes, “If the Salzman family had a coat of arms, it would be a shield with a face on it and the face would look worried…We live in fear.”

In this memoir, among other things, he writes about a period after his sister Rachel became ill with pneumonia. Mark flew out from Los Angeles to Connecticut to help her husband Daniel and her two young daughters, aged 9 and 6, while she recovered, but something went terribly wrong in her body, and she never made it home from the hospital.

Mark Salzman describes an incident that happened when Rachel’s condition had become truly dire. Her kidneys had failed, her liver was irreparably damaged, and she wasn’t getting better.

By this point, their father had come to be there, and Mark paints a picture of his father as a loving, timid, reticent person.

Because Rachel’s condition had worsened so dramatically, Mark and his father had a private conversation about what should be done if Rachel could be kept alive indefinitely but in a vegetative state—which they didn’t want to happen. They also talked about the fact that Rachel’s two daughters had been repeatedly reassured that their mother would get well, so they didn’t know seriously ill she was.

Mark and his father wanted to talk to Rachel’s husband Daniel about these issues, but they didn’t know how to broach them, so they decided to talk to Rachel’s psychiatrist about it.

They asked him what to do. Mark recounts:

He didn’t pretend to have all the answers, and I liked that about him. Under circumstances like these, he said, simply being there for the girls and playing it by ear was probably the best anyone could do. But then he took the conversation in an unexpected direction. He suggested to my dad that he needed to step up and become more of a father figure to Daniel. Right away.

“You’re Rachel’s father; you’re the paterfamilias, he’ll listen to you.” He recommended that Dad let Daniel know how we felt about keeping Rachel alive if she were truly brain dead. He also recommended that we encourage Daniel to tell the girls that their mother might not recover, because if she died before he had prepared them in some way, they might feel that they’d been deceived.

My father listened attentively, but I found it difficult to imagine him suddenly taking on the paterfamilias role.

So Mark, his father, and the psychiatrist have this conversation, the next day comes, and Mark continues the story.

I went back into the house. Dad was still sitting at the table, when he turned to Daniel and said, in a very matter-of-fact way, that we needed to talk about Rachel. He said that none of us wanted Rachel to live like a vegetable and that it was time to get a neurologist to examine her. “If she’s brain dead,” he said calmly but firmly, “we’ve got to turn off the machines. We’ll do it together, all of us, it won’t be just you.”

Mark describes that when Daniel heard this, he started crying, and they all comforted each other, and then a minute later, Mark and Rachel’s father continues…

“And you’ve got to prepare the girls before that happens.”

“When?” Daniel asked.

“Now.”

Daniel stood up, went to the front screen door, and called out to the girls. “I need you to come here. Daddy needs to talk to you.”

And Daniel explained the situation to his two daughters. And then he called a neurologist.

This is a sad story, but it also fills me with awe, and a sense of transcendent peace. I’ve been trying to figure out why I keep thinking about it. I think it’s because it’s an example—not just one time, but two times—when one person is able thoughtfully and gently to remind someone of painful duties, and that person recognizes the right action, and rises to the occasion to fulfill it.

To be able to see what is right action, to be able to hear it, and to be able to do it—these are not easy. It’s beautiful to see it happen.

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