While it is technically true that everything has a reason, knowing that really doesn’t help most people deal with what feels like the unreasonable realities of life. I am a fan of the TV show Bones, in which the chief character, Dr. Temperance Brennan, can always describe the reasonable chain of events that caused the victim to die. She regularly offers this chain to the victim’s family in an attempt to help them deal with their loss. Her partner and husband, Booth, then has the difficult task of getting Brennan to stop talking, sooth the family’s ruffled feathers and get the required information from the family.
People in a crisis rarely want to know reasons and generally don’t believe that knowing the reasons will make it all better. Nor are they likely going to refocus their emotional response to the crisis to joy at hearing that things happen for a reason. A discussion of causation and consequences probably is very valuable in a scientific experiment, a philosophy seminar or a theology book but does very little good when real people are facing real life situations with real feelings.
But it seems that we who stand on the side lines and look in on the struggles of those in the middle of things need something to say. We want to make the people feel better–or, as is often the unstated but deeper reason, we want them to stop struggling and suffering so that we aren’t reminded of our own struggles and suffering. And so we try to come up with some words that will cover over the suffering and make everything better.
The painful and difficult truth is that when people suffer, there are no words that will take away the suffering. We can’t say something that will magically make it all better so that they no longer suffer and we don’t have to be reminded of our suffering. The endless platitudes and clichés and worn out phrases that we use are empty words, doing nothing but filling space and giving us some distance from the suffering. They generally bring no comfort to the people struggling but might make us feel a bit better, giving us a false sense of accomplishment that we helped.
When people are in the midst of a crisis, they likely need and want help, although there are a few who claim to neither need nor want anything. But the help that makes a difference comes when we are willing to acknowledge the reality of their suffering and open ourselves to discovering the best way to provide the help they need in the situation.
Because I am a Christian, I believe that the Holy Spirit will guide me in the situation, if I will listen. As a pastor, I am called in to many difficult situations and I have learned over the years that I need to listen carefully to the people involved and to the Holy Spirit. My listening to those two sources is greatly enhanced if I keep my mouth shut. I used to joke with counselling students that when the mouth opens, the ears and mind are automatically shut off. I am aware that that isn’t really true, but for many of us, that is practically true.
Rather than spend my time trying to remove the suffering with magic words, I have discovered that I need to let the suffering exist and listen to it and step into it, letting the people I am with off-load a bit of their burden on me for the time I am with them. My presence is the biggest help I can give them–or rather, my actively listening presence is the biggest help I can give them. As they talk and cry and rage and sputter and wonder and all the rest, I am trying to be there–not looking for some magic words to turn off the tap of their suffering but letting the suffering come out, encouraging it with my listening and my acceptance.
They may ask for reasons–but I have none. They may ask for time to turn back–I can’t do that. They may get really angry–I can’t stop that. They may cry–I might not feel comfortable with that. But as they get to freely let it all out, I am actually helping. I think it is much better to listen and help than speak empty words and not help.
May the peace of God be with you.