Many years ago — actually about a quarter of a century ago — I had applied for the job of Student Ombudsperson at the University of Chicago. The job of the Ombudsperson was to help students navigate the bureaucracy of the university, and to help them get their concerns heard when the usual channels weren’t working. It was a job where I got to problem-solve and advocate for people, and that appealed to me.
One part of the process for being considered for the job was an interview with a selection committee, which featured members of the faculty, administration and student body, who asked me (and presumably the other candidates) questions and offered hypothetical issues to resolve. It was during one of the hypotheticals, the details of which are not especially important, that I was confronted with a hypothetical student who simply wouldn’t be happy with any outcome. So, like this:
Q: A student comes with “X” problem. How would you resolve it?
A: I would do “Y”, and here’s why [explain why].
Q: Okay, but they’re not happy with that solution. What do you do then?
A: Then I would try “Z,” and here’s why [explain why].
Q: Okay, but they’re still not happy. Now what?
A: Well, then let’s try “Q,” because [explain why].
Q: They’re still not happy.
A: Fine, I would try “K,” because [explain why].
“Okay,” my interviewer then said, “But they’re still not happy with your solution or your efforts. What do you do then?”
“I give them a quarter to call someone who cares,” I said. “Because at that point it’s clear they’re more interested in being upset than anything else, and I have other work to do.”
Yes, I actually did say that (or something very close to it; it was 25 years ago and I didn’t record it).
And yes, I got the job.
Here’s the thing: I believe that we owe our fellow human beings a certain amount of compassion and courtesy and respect, and to listen to their complaints and grievances. We should ask ourselves whether those complaints and grievances are valid, and whether we can help — and in some cases, ask whether we are the author of those grievances, and if so what we can do to resolve them.
But I also believe that after a certain point, it may become obvious that some people just want to complain, or to be angry, or to be an asshole, or whatever, and that nothing a reasonable person can do will ever make those people happy or satisfied. So you give them a quarter, metaphorically or otherwise, and tell them to call someone who cares. Because you have other things to do. And then you go on doing those things you need to do.
They won’t be happy, but then they were never going to be happy, and it’s not your responsibility to fix their problem — “their problem” not being whatever specific complaint or grievance they might have, but a worldview that requires them to always have a complaint or grievance, and/or to believe that the root of that complaint is somehow about you. That’s something for therapy, perhaps, not for you, or anyone else who isn’t getting paid by the session.
You should be a kind and compassionate person to others when they have a problem or grievance. You should also know when it’s a problem you can’t solve, and also, when the person doesn’t actually want the problem to be solved. It’s neither kind nor compassionate to them or to you to keep being involved after that point. And to be sure, after you’ve given them their quarter, they will likely complain that you are a terrible person, and/or part of a conspiracy to keep them down, and so on and so forth. That’s their karma, not yours.
I was and am pretty proud of my time as Student Ombudsperson at the University of Chicago. I ended up helping a good number of people, and making sure that the students could get their voices heard. But I never forgot that part of the reason I got the job is because they knew I knew where to draw a line. It was a useful skill in that job. It continues to be useful to me today.