Most of you probably know the game Marco-Polo… one person is blindfolded in the middle of a room or a pool, the others are moving around them not blindfolded. When the blindfolded person says “Marco,” the others must respond “Polo,” with the eventual aim that the Marco person finds the Polo people by following their voice.
You will not know my cat Talia, most of you, but you may have met cats who do this – if the house is too quiet or if she isn’t sure where her sister is, she’ll wander around the house meowing, “Hello? Anyone home?” until someone responds. Then she’ll run to them and quickly go back to exploring.
Recently I’ve been finding these images to be helpful ones to share with people trying to figure out how to respond to friends and loved ones in crisis. In the midst of my own health and spiritual crisis, it has happened repeatedly that I will disclose some of my struggles in writing to someone who I know cares deeply, and I will not hear back from them. What I later find is that the person was waiting until they had the right words to say in return, and those words never came. I know that feeling. I have waited for the right words myself.
Here’s the thing about crisis – there rarely are words to say that feel adequate. Crisis is much better met by presence, touch, and service. But if words are what you have, don’t wait for the perfect words. By far the more important thing is the fact that you are listening.
So here’s my suggestion… instead of thinking of crisis communication as a treatise that needs a fitting and eloquent response, think of it as a “Marco.” Trauma or crisis blinds and isolates, and most often (at least at first), what a person needs is as simple as a, “Polo.”
“Anyone out there?”
“I’m here. I see you.”
And sometimes trauma or crisis takes away voice and words, too. In that case, there may be no “Marco,” but it may still be your job to intuit the “Marco” and respond, “Polo.”
My sense is that people fear saying something wrong. That’s a good fear to have – there are lots of unhelpful things to say. People also have a sense of respect for privacy, and the urge to look away from another’s vulnerability, pain and shame is strong. This is a good hesitation, too, in some cases – there can be many ways to be too intrusive.
But in my experience in both offering and receiving support, “Marco? – Polo” is always okay. Or just “Polo.”
“I’m here. I don’t know what to say or do, but I’m here.”
And as in the game, sometimes the “Marco? – Polo,” might end up needing to be repeated over and over. Or you might find that when you say “Polo,” the other person rushes into your arms for a good cry. Or perhaps the other person will ask something else of you. Or you might find that they walk away from you. Be aware that you may need to accept or respond to any of those… and trust that you will be given the resources to respond when a request comes.
But mostly, in the midst of the blinding, isolating, terrifying aftermath of trauma or crisis, when the person feels like there just might not be anyone out there at all who sees, what your friend needs from you is a “Polo” – “I’m here.”