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Are You Listening?

Some things about high school biology class I’d rather not remember. I have vague impressions of frogs and formaldehyde, platelets and amoebas – sights and smells I’ve tried to forget. But over the years of Bio 101 I’ve come to realize that there was something about the class that stuck. It had nothing to do with science; a lot to do with friendship.

Emily and I shared a lab table. Our friendship didn’t begin with dissected frogs and microscopes. We’d hung around together before that, and I thought I knew Emily pretty well. You really couldn’t help knowing her. She was one of those transparent kinds of friends. I could tell, for example, how she and her mom were getting along by the way she answered the phone. Her driving style on the way home from school reflected how she fared in her biology exam.

Biology was in some ways Emily’s barometer; I suppose because she was so good at it and cared so much about it. A test score of 98 or above and Emily was soaring. Ninety-seven or below plunged her into despair.

But that was just Emily. There was no doubt about how she felt. I was content simply to live with her mood swings, with no thought of explanations or analysis. Friendship was for fun, not for long, heavy psychoanalysis of yourself or your friend. If I just waited around, she’d calm down.

Sometimes, however, Emily’s feelings could not be easily dismissed. Like the day I walked into the biology lab and found Emily sitting by the trash can, vigorously ripping pages out of her blue biology notebook, depositing them in the garbage can beside the door. I knew those pages represented half a semester’s worth of careful, agonizing research. The completed project was due in three weeks.

“This project is a total dud.” Emily sputtered between sobs. “And to think, I really believed I could be a biologist someday.” She didn’t bother to look at me when she talked. I tried a last-minute salvage job. “Emily, listen to me. You’ve worked for weeks on that research. That’s great stuff. I’ve read some of it. You are terrific in this class. Now, if you had grades like mine in biology, you’d have reason for despair.”

I could tell that my words were having little effect. The sobbing continued. Emily seems resolute on the destruction of her biology project as I stood helplessly and watched.

“Come on. You know this is not good. Sloppy work. No conclusions. Some scientist, huh?”

By this time Emily’s strange behavior was becoming irritating. She was not even making sense. She knew she was good in biology. I knew she was good in biology. In fact, she was Mr. Mansey’s only hope for the future from the entire sophomore class. She’d come very close to winning a science scholarship that usually went only to seniors. Now here she was telling me how terrible she was at biology. I took it as my moral obligation, in the name of friendship, to set her acts straight.

“Emily, you are at the top of biology. You know that. What’s the deal? Mr. Mansey never said your project had to be perfect, though yours probably is. Here, let me help you get it out of the trash.”

That was one step too far. “Just let me alone!” She had never said that to me before. I was stunned. What should I do? Keep on coaxing her? Leave? Stand around waiting for mood to shift? Step between her and the trash can and dig her report out as fast as she tossed it in? I was completely confused.

Magic

It was as I stood there in indecision that Mr. Mansey returned from a faculty meeting in the teacher’s lounge. I saw him at the door and rushed over.

“Mr. Mansey, Emily’s just dumped her project,” I blurted out like a 3 year old tattling on her friend. “She says it’s not good enough. I think it’s terrific.”

I waited for Mr. Mansey to pick up my theme. Instead, he pulled up a lab stool, sat down, and pushed his glasses up on his nose – the way he always did when deep in thought. It took him a long time to say anything.

I figured there was a critical need for words right then, not silence. Mr. Mansey apparently felt otherwise. At last he cleared his throat.

“Emily, not getting that scholarship was a big disappointment to you, wasn’t it?” I guess I wasn’t aware it meant that much to you. Are you feeling that the committee was unfair?”

Mr. Mansey’s words were magic. Emily spun around her lab stool, laid her empty blue notebook on the table, lifted her head high, and looked straight into Mr. Mansey’s face, which was more than she’d done for me.

Hurting

“Yes,” she said spiritedly, “that committee was unfair. They penalized me for being a sophomore!”

I listened in amazement as Emily’s pent-up hurt came pouring out, this time in words, not actions. I’d had no idea she’d felt that deeply about losing the scholarship. All I’d known was that she’d been sort of gloomy the last day or two. I’d never thought to connect the two, even though she’d told me all about the scholarship, her application, the committee interview, and finally about the rejection. I’d never bothered to think about what it must feel like to lose something on which you really had heart set.

I left Mr. Mansey’s room that day with the distinct impression that he had been the true friend, at least a fat better listener. I wasn’t sure then exactly why. Now I know. Mr. Mansey understood how to communicate with a hurting friend.

What I Wish

I wish I’d known that sometimes my friends will make statements that sound like facts when they are really telling me more about the way they feel. “This project is a dud” sounded very much like fact to me. But what Emily was really saying to me was “At the moment I’m feeling like I must be a dud, not quite the budding scientist I thought I was.” A listening friendship does not stop with externals. It goes below the surface and asks, “What is the feeling behind the statement?”

I wish I’d known that my friends don’t need me to talk them out of their feelings. They may simply need me to help them call their feelings by name – rejection, anger, disappointment. I didn’t convince Emily of a thing by throwing all the facts in her face. She didn’t need to know how good she really was at science. In fact, my telling her that just compounded her frustration. The point was, she felt disappointment and rejection. Her grades in biology were irrelevant.

Sometimes all my friends need from me is the affirmation that someone else knows what they’re feeling. Mr. Mansey didn’t say a lot, but he said enough. “Emily, you’re feeling that you were treated unfairly…you’re disappointed.” Emily knew she’d found a true companion.

Such sensitivity naturally means that I must be aware of the details of my friends’ lives. I must care enough to ask questions about scholarship interviews, not being asked out, whatever. There is no way I can be sensitive to the feelings that might be coloring another’s statements if I don’t know what’s happening in their lives.

I wish I’d known that sometimes a friend needs my listening ear more than he or she needs my answers. Most of the time, we feel that if we talk long and loud enough, we can single-handedly pull a friend out of his quagmire. During times of despair, however, a person’s focus is usually turned inward. He may not even hear a word we say. But he will hear “You’re really upset, aren’t you? Want to talk about it?” The focus is on him. Successful dialog with a hurting friend is not so much what we tell him as what we let him tell us. Asking the right questions affords that opportunity.

I wish I’d known how to tell when a friend is asking for advice and when he or she is simply asking to be heard. Distinguishing between the two is never easy, because the person may not even know himself. When do I talk and when do I listen? If my friend does not give me any direct clues, such as “What do you think?” or “What would you do?” I should be probably listening rather than talking.

Emily was well aware that she was good at science. I didn’t tell her one new bit of information. What she needed was someone who opened the door of her hurt and allowed her to talk. We may not always be able to know why a friend is hurting, but it is not hard to tell when a friend is hurting. Sometimes all she needs to know is that we’ve noticed.

Emily’s biology project never did make it out of the garbage can. She started over just because that’s the way she was when it came to biology. But on that day I learned something about friendship that will take a lifetime to put into practice.

Relationships


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