Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Being with people in the valley

This is a bloggified version of the sermon I gave on Good Shepherd Sunday.

There's a reason Psalm 23 is so popular, but I hadn't really realized it until I read it in the midst of the  rotten week we had last week.

Here's the verse that leapt out at me:

Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death,
I shall fear no evil;
for you are with me;
your rod and your staff, they comfort me.
As I thought about it, one of the things that's hard about helping people who are in the valley is that it feels like you aren't doing anything. We want so much to do something that will make it better. But  in the Psalm, it doesn't say, "I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, and you take care of everything and make it go away." Accompanying someone through the valley isn't about zapping everything into perfection, but being with a person for the long haul to the other side. The Psalm captures that perfectly.

I thought it might be helpful to share what we can do to be with people when they are walking through the valley of the shadow of death -- and what we can hope for when we're going through it ourselves. And so here are three suggestions of what not to do, and three suggestions of what we can do to help those when they are walking through that valley.

What not to do:

1) Do not compare or rank suffering. When someone is having a hard time, it is not helpful to be told that other people have it much worse than they do. I saw that a lot with the bombings in Boston, with people saying, "Oh yeah? Well, think about Syria." There is no denying that other people are suffering, but if your object is to provide comfort, that will not help. It will, in fact, simply put up walls between you and the other person.

Another way we do this that seems encouraging but is simply another form of the same tactic is when we say to people "Cheer up! It could always be so much worse!" Again, this is not helpful. Comparing one person's suffering to another, or to an imaginary worse situation, denies or minimizes a person's situation. It sends the message that they should not feel the way they do. The fact is, they do feel the way they do. How anyone else feels or what anyone else is going through at that moment is irrelevant.

2) Do not give advice. The desire to give advice may come from the best of motives and the honest impulse to want to fix things. But the effect of giving advice often merely exacerbates the pain a person is going through.

I recently read a reflection from someone who talked about how giving advice to someone with chronic illness is, in fact, an isolating experience. For someone who has already tried everything and still feels stuck in the valley, advice is not only meaningless, it becomes a source of pain. It says to the person, "I'm healthy and you're not and if only you had X, Y, and Z, it wouldn't have happened to you. And if you only do 1, 2, and 3, you would get yourself out of it." Advice implies "I don't want to be here with you; I want you to come here with me." For someone in the valley, this is not helpful. The valley is not traversed by advice.

3) Do not make assumptions. Do not assume you know what's really going on. Do not assume you know what a person is feeling. Do not assume you know how things are going to turn out. Because the truth is, you do not know what people are experiencing. You cannot tell by looking. And even with what they tell you, dollars to donuts you are not getting the whole story.

Again, thinking of the bombing in Boston: You do not know who you know who might have been affected by this personally, so please be kind in your comments. I've never even been to Boston and yet I received an email this week from a friend who had worked with one of the people who was killed. What are the chances of that? Much higher than you might think.

What you can do:

1) Do reach out. You may worry that people won't want to be reminded if they're having a bad time. Believe me, they haven't forgotten. In fact, one thing that's hard for people who are in the middle of the valley is feeling like they are always the ones who have to reach out. Even if you don't have anything to say, just calling someone up and saying, "Hey, I just wanted you to know I was thinking about you" can mean a whole lot. The valley can be a long hard slog and the very people who seem to be handling it best because they "don't want to bug you" are the very ones for whom a simple word will mean the most.

2) Do ask what would help. Simply saying, "What can I do for you?" even if the answer is "nothing" is helpful. You can also ask some more specific questions, like "I'm going to the store/library/downtown; is there anything you need?"

3) Do listen. You don't need to have answers. Simply ask, "What's the latest? How are you? What's going on right now? How has your day been?" and let people tell you. Even when it's not what you want to hear. Even when it's discouraging. Even when you want to jump in with something to cheer them up. Just let them tell you. Just be there.

Sometimes the hardest thing to do is simply be in the valley with people. As I said earlier, it feels like we're not doing anything. But that's not true. We're being with people, where they are, when things are hardest, even when we can't do anything about it. That's not easy. In fact, that's really hard work.

I hope you've been able to find people to be with you in the valley, and I wish you strength and good courage to accompany others.

Here's another article that offered helpful suggestions on how to be with people who are suffering: For a Sick Friend: First Do No Harm

And this one (which I've referenced before) sums it up in the terrifically helpful mantra Comfort IN, Dump OUT. Always good to remember.

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