As a pastor, I work with a lot of people who struggle with lots of things. I regularly deal with people facing illness and loss of functions. I spend a lot of time with people dealing with death–their own or that of someone close. I work with victims of terrible abuse. I visit parishioners who have had to have a pet put down. Now and then, I even find myself spending time with a techie whose laptop is sick or dying. I also spend a lot of time with people whose problems are less earth-shaking: a stalled car, a lost book, a staple sticking through the upholstery of a favourite chair, a cake that didn’t turn out right.
I learned early in ministry that even if I think the problem is trivial, I can’t treat it that way–it is their problem and their response to it that matters. I might think it is trivial and in fact the rest of the world might think it is trivial but since it isn’t trivial to them, I need to accept that and work on that basis. Some days, that can be difficult but I think I learned that lesson fairly well.
What took longer to learn is that even if I have the same experience, I can’t assume that my emotional experience is the same as theirs. I can’t assume that I understand exactly what they are feeling and know exactly what they need. Just as I can’t try to make a problem small because I think it is small, I also can’t assume that I fully and completely understand the problem and am therefore completely qualified to give them the benefit of my wisdom and experience.
Certainly, my experience can be helpful in understanding their experience–but my experience isn’t their experience and I can’t forget this. When I deal with children grieving the loss of a parent, I have some inkling of what they feel, having been through the grief of losing my father, my mother and my step-father. But I really can’t know exactly what people are feeling.
Every experience has twists and turns and undercurrents that only the person in the middle fully understands–and even then, they may not fully understand them. When I claim that I understand, I am actually proclaiming to people that I don’t really care enough for them to find out what is really going on in their lives.
When my father died, for example, it was painful and difficult. We had a good relationship and got along well and respected and loved each other. But not every family has that same relationship with a father. The internal realities of such relationships are hidden under the surface of the visible, public presentation–but they are very real and very much a part of the grief process. If I assume that everyone who loses a father feels just like I did, I am probably going to do a very poor job helping people with their grief. A family struggling with the death of a father who was an abuser or a alcoholic or simply not present emotionally will have their grief compounded if I assume their experience is just the same as mine.
I don’t know what people are experiencing. I might have some idea, based on my experience and my study and what I have heard–but I really don’t understand what people are experiencing, at least not until I have spent some serious time with them and they have been willing to open up about what they are experiencing.
One of the strong reactions I have seen from people suffering is their anger at people telling them they understand. Out of politeness, the struggling people nod and say thank you but at some point, they end up telling someone like me that they were angry because the people didn’t really understand–no one can really understand.
We can actually come to understand what people are feeling, it we are willing to admit that we don’t really understand and commit to spending the time it takes to really listen and let people work through their feelings. While I may never fully understand what someone is feeling, I can understand their need to be understood and make the effort to suspend my assumptions so that I can hear the reality of their experience.
May the peace of God be with you.