I received a call in the middle of the night from a friend who was visiting a third world country on one of his frequent humanitarian trips. What I make up is that through such visits he hopes to catch the world’s attention to the plight of those far less fortunate than most of us. He has, over the years, been able to bring attention, in amazing ways, to the problems of third world countries. It was the middle of the night for him and he was calling because he couldn’t sleep.
As we spoke of what he had been doing and witnessing, and how challenged he was by the unbelievable, persistent, and pervasive level of suffering and pain of the peoples he had met, it became clear that his sense of purpose; his faith that anything in this world, except for evil, existed; his faith that there was even a God, (and he was a very strong believer in God), had been terribly shaken because “how could a supreme being think that this would be a good idea”. “How could all this be happening as some part of a divine plan?” Most of all perhaps, an overwhelming sense had washed over him that said “no matter what I do, there was absolutely no hope that anything that I am doing will actually make one bit of difference”.
Another friend suffered the unimaginable experience of watching her mother murdered by gunfire, right before her and her family’s eyes, at the hands of someone trusted to protect her mom. The details of the incident are incomprehensible.
If I ever had any doubt (and I have) of the limited effectiveness of platitudes, situations like this remind me of just how empty such words can be. Comments like “You’ll see the blessing in this later”; or “it will all work out”; or “it will all make sense later”:, or “I am sure God has a plan”; or “you will not always feel this much pain”; or “I understand how you are feeling/what you must be going through” or a myriad of other condolences that I have been taught to say. On a personal level, I know how, though well-meaning those kinds of statements are, just how empty they are, and in some ways increase the level of pain of the recipient. They sometimes leave a greater sense of hopelessness, helplessness, isolation, and powerlessness for that person. Especially isolation.
I am not saying that such statements don’t help some people. I am sure, sometimes they do (though, personally, I have never found them to be very helpful on the receiving end, but I figure that is just me). But, I’ve found that some experiences are so incredibly painful, that there are, literally, no words. Some situations are so tragic, so hopeless, so wrong, and so unfair that, try as much as I can, there is absolutely nothing I can possibly relate to. Some events are so cataclysmic, so unbelievable, and so unimaginable, that they are the exclusive habitat of our nightmares, until they unfold during our waking hours.
So how do I help? What can I do to let the other person know that they are not alone? If words don’t work, what do I do? I used to think that asking them to let me know if there was anything I could do was helpful. What I think I have learned is that when I am in that most desolate of places, I no clue what I need, what I want or what would help, let alone have the ability to ask for it. I am in a true state of shock. Frozen. Just trying to survive the moment. Blinded if you will, to what I need, what I want, unable to verbalize what would be helpful.
I have found that conducting a “yes” or “no” test works. “Do you need someone to cut the grass?” “Do you need someone to get your mail?” I have found that I, and others, can nod my head “yes” or “no” and be pretty accurate.
What’s left for us who are witnessing the suffering of a person we care about? Perhaps one clue comes from elephants. I read recently that in a herd of elephants, if one is suffering, ill, or wounded in some way, the others gather around, slow down, walk with them, protect them, touch them, make cooing sounds, cool them off with water. In other words tend to them.
The human version of this might be as simple as hearing the wounded one. Believing that just by attending to the other is enough. To shed my own tears at the tragedy, to do my best to imagine if their story was mine, and imagine how I might be feeling (there is no real way for me to know, even if the same thing happened to me, because we are all different, we experience things differently), and instead of saying anything, just allow ourselves to be in that space of feeling.
I was in a life threatening car accident once. And of all the people who came to visit me I remember three. One was a fellow football coach because he walked in my hospital room and said “Gee, you’re looking great”. I wasn’t looking great, and was feeling even worse, but you know, I am sure he thought it would be helpful to say that. He followed up that statement by falling to the floor in a dead faint.
The other two I remember because of what they didn’t do. One of them came to my room, didn’t say a word, took my hand, held it, sat beside me for a while, and when he got up and looked at me I saw a tear rolling down his cheek. The other came in, sat beside me, and when he left, simply kissed me on the forehead and said “I love you”. The unspoken message I got was “I am with you, really with you, in your suffering”.
A friend of mine wrote a song with the line “I can’t go through the fire for you; but I can go into the fire with you”. The word I would use to describe this is intimacy
So, my goal is to be the perfect friend. To figure out how to let the person I love and care about know that though I cannot possibly know what they are experiencing, I can imagine and I can be there with them. Listening, not talking. Being, not fixing.