As a beginning chaplain in a psychiatric hospital I recall an encounter with a crying, depressed woman, admitted to the hospital because she had tried to commit suicide. I had just began my twelve-weeks of training, and that was the first time I had seen anyone in such distress.
“Life can’t be that bad,” I said.
As I think now of my lack of empathy, I cringe. I chock it up to my inexperience. That’s not something I would say now. Were I to encounter someone in that state today, I wouldn’t even entertain such a thought. Later I learned, if my memory serves me, that the state had taken her children.
Unfortunately, one way people try to help another in suffering is to tell them how they should feel. It makes us feel empowered to encounter someone in obvious distress and to pronounce on their situation. Not only is it a failure of empathy, it reveals our helplessness. Because we feel weak in the face of another’s need, we assert ourselves with strategies designed to keep us in the driver’s seat.
“See how happy is the man whom God reproves; do not reject the discipline of the Almighty,” Eliphaz tells Job (5:8 Jewish Publication Society translation). Job’s friend did listen to Job’s death-wish in Chapter 3, but responds with advice, with his personal revelation, and now tells Job how he should feel. Like my lack of empathy, with this Beatitude Eliphaz shows how much wisdom he has–and reveals his helplessness.
How has the advice of others, who’ve told you how you should feel, affected you?
Wow! That makes total sense that people want to feel powerful in light of what frightens them. I experienced such a response to this recent email I sent.
Dear Friends & Family,
I write as I do not want you to be ignorant of the difficulties I have experienced since Cliff’s death. As I pack to leave for California, it is with a grieving heart I anticipate seeing Craig. His illness is a burden beyond my strength, causing Cliff and I to despair. At times, we felt Craig had received a death sentence to his person. This despair has caused me not to rely on myself, but on God who raises even the dead. (My Cliff is now enjoying this deliverance from death.) It is on God I will set my hope. I hope that while sharing in Christ’s suffering I will eventually also share in Christ’s comfort and salvation. For He says He is the God of all comfort. You can help by praying, so that you can be thankful on my behalf for the blessing given through your prayers. So when I am comforted, you will be comforted, as you patiently endure with me this suffering. For what was lost has been found and what is broken in Craig will in His time be mended.
(adaption of 2 Cor. 1)
The reply I received was “maybe you should go take a walk among the glorious Redwoods”. The comment was dismissive and discounting. I was hurt and dismayed because I was not in the Redwoods and she was. So, as a result of expressing my pain, I received more pain. Should I withdraw and no longer express? Put on a mask and just answer people’s inquiries with “I’m fine!” I decided to delete this person from my email, but still answer her phone calls and tell the truth when she asks how I am doing. I think of the old American Indian adage “Never criticize a man until you’ve walked a mile in his moccasins.” One cannot empathize with what one has not experienced The Bible says it this way: [God] comforts us in all our affliction, so that we may be able to comfort those who are in any affliction, with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God.” (2 Cor1:4) When looking for comfort I have found much more help from those who have had similar experiences. They get it!!
Line 6 chock should be chalk
Patti, thanks for sharing your hurt at that person’s reply to your emotional pain. That comment was dismissive. You can’t expect to change their mind or heart, but you can be real when they ask. Even if visiting the Redwoods could do you some good, the answer she gave showed little or no empathy for the depth of grief you’re feeling. It’s very easy for someone who hasn’t experienced what you have, Like Job’s friends, to respond with a simple answer to a complex issue. You did the right thing to reduce contact, but also to determine to be honest.