Handling The Suffering of Others Like a Dumb-Ass
by: Matt Carter
I lived my first 20-something years blatantly avoiding and ignoring suffering in others. As a result, I did some real damage to real people. Fortunately, God didn’t see fit to allow me to continue in this way and forced me to make up for lost time too. Over the last decade, He has put me directly in the path of countless people who shared with me truly unbearable stories of suicides, rape, incredible abuse, deadly drug addictions, loss of children (born and unborn) loss of parents and siblings, horrific war time experiences, and divorce. Although, at the time, it seemed to have been coincidental or even accidental that these stories were shared (sometimes by complete strangers), I now see that they weren’t. People want and need to talk about there pain.
When someone would unexpectedly start blabbering to me about their issues this is what would go through my mind:
”What the heck?! Its not like I can help anyway, right? I’ve never experienced anything like that.”
“Anything i say is just going to prolong the pain of them having to think about it and talk about it.”
“Cooool. Thanks for sharing. I’m going to to pretend to get a cell phone call now.”
Maybe you are better with this stuff than I was, but my experience is that most people are NOT. Also, I assure you that you encounter more people than you think who suffer, some in profound ways. So here are a few things to keep in mind WHEN, not IF, God puts them in your path.
Ok, so you asked what you thought was a normal surface question, then, unexpectedly, shit got real. Now you are faced with going forward or trying to back out of the conversation. Embarrassed that you brought it up, you are now only thinking about yourself and how uncomfortable YOU are. If you change the subject or avoid the issue you will be reinforcing to this person that they should keep it to themselves, that nobody understands anyway, that they are on their own. Be brave here. Put their needs a head of yours just for a few minutes. You CAN do this.
WHAT NOT TO DO NEXT
DON’T use the biggest cop out, “Well, ill be praying for you.” and move on. You probably won’t, so now you’ve just become a wuss AND a liar. If you WERE going to be praying avidly you WOULD actually have a desire to know them and their situation more. In fact, if you are inclined to pray for them, just go ahead and pray right then and there.
DON’T offer a simple biblical platitude like, “Well, God works all things for good… so hang in there.” or “Have you read Job?” It’s not that the bible isn’t helpful; it is actually our only real hope, but this type of comment can feel very dismissive, especially when not clothed in a deeper conversation.
DON’T say, “If you need anything, call me.” in order to move on. Once again this is also dismissive and you know what? They aren’t going to call you, because the very type of help that they want you to provide, you are neglecting. They want to TALK to someone, and you’ve just made it clear that you don’t want to do that.
DON’T say or ask anything that could at all be construed as accusatory or blaming. “Well, but did you….” ”How did you get in that situation?” This is not the time to solve anything by helping them see what they might have done wrong. They may have done nothing wrong at all in which case YOU are now hurting them with Satan’s old tactic, accusation. For anyone whose had this sort of response, I truly am sorry that you’ve had to encounter that and you may need additional healing from simply encountering this sort of callousness from some one you love and trusted.
DON’T make their story of suffering about yours. Even though we can all relate to others in pain make sure the focus stay on them. Do not say “Yea, when a similar thing happened to me….” or even “I know how you feel.” This happens all the time in church small groups.” We think we are rescuing someone who finally is brave enough to open up, but we just left them hanging there exposed and shifted the focus to us, then the group just moves on.
WHAT TO DO NEXT
DO ask Jesus and the Holy Spirit for your next words or questions. Since we know it’s not helpful to have pre-packaged lines, we need inspiration and guidance for that very unique gift of a moment. If you don’t believe in a God or His willingness to help, at least rely on genuine human interest.
DO tell them that you are sorry. Express that it matters to you. The Bible says in Romans 12 to “rejoice with those who rejoice, and weep with those who weep.” That means it IS possible to identify with and feel with those who suffer! This addresses one of the most difficult things about suffering, and that is feeling alone.
DO ask them further questions as the opportunity is given, ”What do you mean by…..?”, “How long has this been happening?”, “Have you told anyone else?” Anything that will give them a comfortable, safe, opportunity to share further is the goal.
DO be willing to touch/hug/put your hand on the shoulder of the person if appropriate. In fact, your entire body language is important. Make eye contact, be affirming, and PLEASE do not make a big goofy-ass, frowny face at them! (you know the one I’m talking about).
WHAT TO KNOW
KNOW that God,(or fate, or entropy, or whatever you want to believe) has put you in this situation. It’s not an accident. In other words DON’T spend time in doubt that you are to be used here. If you do you’ll be guilty once again of thinking about YOU not THEM.
KNOW that it is not your job to fix or solve. They probably are not asking for your advice. You are a fellow sufferer that can only love and care about them. This is actually a really big deal and very helpful, as people weren’t created to be alone. Your job is to engage with them and show that you are not afraid and that they are not alone. It is only God who can truly heal.
KNOW that it’s not easy. It will always be messy and you will mess up and say stupid things. Thats okay. You both may even feel worse at the end of the conversation, but…
KNOW that merely facing reality and truth, in the long run, is a big win in itself.
What do you think?
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