I know I have written about this before, but since the whole world apparently doesn’t follow my blog so it needs to be covered again. Please share this freely, it is so very important…
If you know someone who is suffering for any reason and they tell you about it, there are some things you should never say. Certain segments of religion, primarily Christianity, have developed some pat answers for such situations. While these little tidbits of advice are often offered by well-meaning people, they are horrifying. These ideas are terribly bad theology, and they are nothing anyone should ever say to someone they care about. They are popular things to say because we are uncomfortable with hearing people express their emotions, especially if those emotions are painful. Here they are:
1. “God is testing you.” Equally bad is its corollary, “God has a plan.” Here is what the person hears when you say either of those: God is really just messing with you right now for God’s entertainment. Your pain and your suffering are just entertainment for God, who may or may not relent at some point, depending on how God’s mood swings. You need to just shut up and put up with it, or it is proof you don’t have faith. I am frankly amazed that more people spouting this tripe don’t lose friends over it. A God who would mess with people for his own amusement would be a terrorist and no God at all. Someone who is suffering is in distress, and your cheerful willingness to identify God as the source of their distress is not only profoundly insensitive but it also has the potential of taking away from them any solace their faith may provide in difficult moments! When you cast God as a kind of cosmic Pol Pot rather than a loving God of comfort, you may well take away the only resource they have left.
2. “God won’t give you more than you can handle.” I hate to break it to you, but the person already has more than they can handle or they wouldn’t be suffering! What’s more, the next verse finishes the thought and says that God will provide the suffering person the resources they need to make it through. Here’s a newsflash – that resource is partly you, but if you are shutting down the suffering person with one of these terrible little truisms then you are in no position to be a helpful resource! In fact, you are actually inflicting harm by indirectly telling the person you don’t care to listen to them.
A Better Approach
1. Close mouth, open ears. What a suffering person needs most of all is for people to listen and understand. What’s more, the truth is that we really don’t have the resources to fix the person’s problem anyway – but we can listen. We can also empathize, we can say we understand what they are saying, we can say things like “that must be hard.” What we shouldn’t do is pretend that we know their experience, unless we have had that same experience ourselves. If our friend says something we don’t understand, we can ask for clarification. In short, we can be supportive while not being dismissive; listen without feeling compelled to offer explanations or to fix anything.
2. Get used to talking about feelings with someone you trust. It’s the best practice for those moments when a friend or loved one comes to us in their suffering. Also, know that if you are listening to someone who is suffering and it gets to be too much, it’s perfectly alright to say you need to take a break for a few minutes.
3. Practice sitting in a room with someone you trust without either of you speaking. This is great practice for being with someone who just needs company but doesn’t feel like talking. When we are suffering, we all have times when we just don’t want to be alone but also don’t want to talk about it. Americans are used to sitting in silence with someone, but it’s a great skill to develop. It might help to imagine you are in a library.
4. Give yourself permission to be imperfect. None of us handle these situations perfectly. We all make mistakes. When you make a mistake, don’t be afraid to say so. Your friend will appreciate your honesty. What’s important is making the effort! Your friend will be glad you did, and so will you!