Ever been in a gathering (or one on one) when someone starts sharing pain from their story, whether personal or group related? Or has that person ever been you? What usually happens? Well, quite often one or more people listening will feel compelled to share their own story of pain, however dissimilar, hoping somehow that it will encourage the person. Or at least change the subject.
Recently I was in a meeting like this. But I have been in many similar meetings over the years. The net affect is often not to increase the sense of empathy for the person sharing, but rather an inappropriate shifting of focus. Yes, the motives are often good. But sharing our own story of pain, however well-intentioned, actually can often do more harm than good.
Far better is an empathetic listening. There are times when our story is important, helping the person to know that we can ‘identify’ and they are not alone. But I find that those times are more rare than common. I am learning, and it is not easy, to choose silence as my first response. But of course a silence filled with love, however expressed non-verbally.
But I find it so difficult. Times too numerous to remember I voiced my own story, without being asked. It was like the moments of silence when faced with another’s pain were just too filled with my own helplessness. I needed to do something and often filled that space with words. My precious wife has the gift of tears, and when someone is sharing pain she often expresses that empathy with that gift. For me, tears are infrequent though I feel deeply. I like to say, and it is not a cop-out, that I do cry more on the inside.
Silence is also a gift, like tears. But for most of us silence is an unwanted gift. It is much easier to fill that space, whether with our own story, or even worse with humor that only shifts the focus even more. You see, when we share our own story of pain as a response to another, we risk making the space now about us, and we have filled it. Of course that is not our intention. Our hope was to help, to identify, to encourage or inspire.
A classic example of course is in the book of Job in the Bible. Job has experienced catastrophic disaster, losing his family and everything else. He is sitting alone, having been cursed even by his formerly loving wife. Three friends come to comfort him (and later another), and for the first seven days they sit with him in silence. How hard would that be? Because of their later preachy sermons to him, these friends get a pretty bad rap and are even rebuked by God. But in those first seven days, they manage to just sit with him in his brokenness and pain.
Holding someone’s story of pain, or the pain of their family or people group or nation, without injecting ours, is never easy. Especially if by their sharing we may feel defensive or responsible. For me it is one of the hardest things. And to be honest, it has been one of my weak points. I have been too quick to respond, to want to fix things, to become the healer though I have no medicine.
I am learning. That is the best I can do. And hope that the next time I am in a conversation like that, I will find a grace in loving silence. For the most important thing is not whether we share our story or are silent, but whether we love.
A love with words, or a love deeper than words.