I’m often amazed at how difficult it seems for some people to comfort one another in times of affliction. We’ve been admonished to “rejoice with those who rejoice; and mourn with those who mourn.” (Romans 12:15) But too often, our desire to give advice and pass judgment preempts our compassion. It seems to be human nature to think that our ideas or stories are more helpful, or at least easier, than actively mourning with another person.
What is so difficult about validating each other’s experiences? Granted, it can be uncomfortable watching someone we care about suffer. We, as humans, are programmed to avoid pain. But we are also quite capable of sympathizing and empathizing with others. So often we want to diagnose another’s dilemma and prescribe what we think is the best course of action for that person. But I would venture to say, the greatest gift we can give someone who is hurting, is space to experience the emotions rather than shut them down.
“Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and God of all comfort, who 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 Corinthians 1:3, 4)
When a mother of small children expresses that she feels overwhelmed with the never-ending demands of motherhood, reminding her to be grateful she has healthy children doesn’t put an end to her exhaustion and frustration. Of course she is grateful for her children, but gratitude doesn’t eliminate the emotions she is feeling amidst the mess and noise of little ones who constantly need her.
A person who is violently ill or incapacitated isn’t comforted by the comment, “At least it isn’t cancer.”
Someone who is homeless and hungry isn’t sheltered and fed by the reminder that others are in the same situation.
The physical and emotional wounds of an assault victim aren’t diminished by hearing stories of others who had more severe injuries.
That’s because suffering isn’t eased by pointing out that someone has (or had) it worse!
Who are we to rank people’s suffering and assign them an appropriate response to their affliction? In the moment of injury, a stubbed toe can be just as painful as a broken leg. Where in the Bible does it give us the right to judge another’s experience and then tell that person how, when and how long to process that experience?
While counting one’s blessings and accentuating the positive has merit, so does sitting quietly with the hurting. When we visit with those who are sick or afflicted in some way, do we acknowledge their struggle or do we recount our own stories? Do we really listen and hear their words or are we thinking of our next comment or story to share?
By all means, share words of encouragement and support; but not at the exclusion of validating the difficulty of the situation. Sometimes words aren’t the first line of defense to aid healing. Sometimes the act of sitting quietly with an arm around the afflicted is the most effective method of easing a wounded heart.
And if words are needed, maybe the words we need to speak are these:
“I’m sorry you’re hurting. How can I help?”
Let’s comfort each other by acknowledging the situation, validating the emotions, and offering a hand to hold. It might be best to save the Pollyanna attitudes and platitudes for another day….after the sting has diminished. Is it really that challenging to show a little compassion?