Let’s begin this post with a confession, because who can resist those?! This is my second attempt at writing this post. In the first version, I tried to write about this topic with a little distance, but that made it too dry and preachy. Bleh, who wants to read that? So this version is up-close, personal and raw. You’ve been warned.
I have always been one who cheers for the underdog. Not surprisingly, my favorite scripture is D&C 81:5 “. . .succor the weak, lift up the hands which hang down, and strengthen the feeble knees.” As members of the church, we do a great job with this in some ways, but there are other areas where we fall short.
If “hands on” work is needed, you will be challenged to find a group outside of the church that does more for humanitarian causes, helps more people move, brings in more meals to the new mothers and those who are ill, or any number of other physical needs. When it comes to “hands on” service, we are a roll-up-our-sleeves and get to work kind of people. I’m proud to be a part of that.
However, where we fall short is when the needs are emotional. To be fair, I think it could be argued that this is an American culture issue, not limited to Mormons, however, as people who have covenanted to bear one another’s burdens, we need to try to do better.
What do I mean by emotional needs not being met? Essentially, I am referring to people who are struggling and feel very alone. I like to use the parable of the Good Samaritan to help illustrate this pain and the ways we sometimes approach it. Imagine the wounded man lying on the side of the road, beaten, broken, bleeding. As he lies there hurting, he prays for someone, anyone to come and help. Eventually he sees someone approaching and breathes a small sigh of relief, but the person walks on by without even pausing. Now his despair is greater than before.
I have been figuratively lying by the side of the road for some time now and it is a very dark and lonely place. Before I tell you how I got here, let’s consider a couple other scenarios. Mike Barker mentioned in his interview with A Thoughtful Faith how alone he felt in his crisis of faith. He tried to reach out to others, to get some help, but they figuratively walked away.
Other people have expressed, feeling alone after a loved one dies. There is always a lot of support, food, and funeral potatoes for the first couple days, but then when the hands-on work is done, people ‘walk away’. In a Deseret News article, staff writer, Lois M. Collins shared the experience of her friend, Eleanor, who was mourning. Eleanor said “. . .the truth is I am amazed at how people feel so very uncomfortable around me.” Ms. Collins added: “She is surrounded by friends and even family that she suspects of trying to ‘take care’ of her with their silence. It’s not working. “ Lois M. Collins, Desert News Don’t ignore friends who are suffering from grief
I also struggle with friends that try to help me with their silence. A couple years ago, I started therapy because of panic attacks. I soon discovered the reason for the pain attacks was repressed memories of childhood sexual abuse. I won’t go into detail, but I do want to say it was a close family member and it went on for years. As a child, the only way I could cope with such trauma was to repress it. I would prefer that it had stayed repressed, but healing does not work that way.
The time since has been the most difficult struggle of my life, prior to this, I had experienced all kinds of adversity, from life threatening health issues, financial struggles: my husband was laid off a couple times in as many years leading to bankruptcy and foreclosure. I faced the death of beloved family members including a niece and nephew, who were teenagers. I had a miscarriage at 12 weeks. Through all of these painful things, I was able to lean on my testimony. My relationship with Heavenly Father and Jesus Christ carried me through. But dealing with childhood sexual abuse is like nothing I ever experienced.
The pain, shame, anger and mental issues caused a spiritual earthquake. It was as if everything spiritual had been shaken and fallen to the ground. I had to start all over. During this time there were other issues as well flashbacks, nightmares, etc. Perhaps the strongest feeling of all, has been a feeling of tremendous loneliness.
The emotional pain was intense, and one day the thought came to me that the only way to release the pain was self-harm. This is generally something we think of teenagers doing, but I am 46! I later learned that self-harm and suicidal ideation are very common among trauma survivors. I never gave into the temptation to self-harm, because I read that it is very addictive, but I struggled with the temptation for months. Eventually, I became suicidal. (That was a while ago. I am doing much better now.) I want to clarify something here. When a person is thinking of suicide, they are not thinking rationally. I have seen this in other people I have talked to. I genuinely believed that my mood swings were hurting my family, that there was no hope of anything getting better and they would be better off without me.
During this time, I told people I was hurting. I blogged, I talked to people in person, I went to therapy, in short I reached out in every way I could think of. And still I felt so alone. Then I would go to church and hear someone in Testimony meeting talk about how much support they had received from the ward in the way of meals, flowers, service etc. And I would think, “Am I invisible?” I didn’t want meals, or hands-on service, I only wanted someone to look me in the eye and say, “How are you, Leslie?” I wanted an email, a phone call, any reassurance that someone cared about me and my pain.
Slowly, I developed a relationship with one of my visiting teachers. There were issues to overcome, for example, she felt I should just “let it go.” As if I could! But I let go of my anger towards her and everyone else for that judgment. I just kept telling myself, “They mean well; they just don’t understand.” When I got comfortable enough with her, I would tell her how lonely I felt and ask why the members of the ward did not give more support/friendship. She said, “They are afraid to say the wrong thing.” I could only shake my head at that. Silence is better?
To be fair, they are right. When people try to say something to people who are hurting…whether that is me, or some other circumstance, they generally do say the wrong thing -more about that in a moment. I am still working on my healing, but I have come to a place where I am able to let go of much of the anger I have felt towards my ward family. I accept that they are good people that just really don’t know how to help,
So that is the problem, what is the solution?
The first obstacle to truly bearing one another’s burdens is the blame game. For me this exhibited itself in well-meaning people telling me to “let go” and to forgive. This carries the message of “Leslie, if you would just forgive you would feel better. It’s really your fault you are hurting.” Having put the responsibility on me (and adding to my pain), I imagined them figuratively walking away leaving me lying alone on the side of the road.
Whenever we answer someone’s deep pain with, “you should. . .” we are blaming. We tell someone in Mike’s position, you should stop reading that anti-Mormon propaganda, ignoring that he was not reading anti-Mormon material at all. We tell someone who is single and feels alone that they need to reach out to others. Blaming is a bit like telling the wounded man on the side of the road to, “Get your lazy self up off the ground and run after that priest and make him understand that you need help.”
Since blaming is not helpful, we need to look for other solutions. You may truly believe that the person who is hurting needs to change somehow, but does that relieve you of your burden to help? We can only change ourselves, so we should start there. Each of us can do more to help others. I know it is hard when we are overwhelmed with our own issues. But there are always ways to reach out.
When I feel that I am hurting too much to help anyone else, I remember one of my heroes, Admiral James Stockdale. He was a POW during Vietnam. One could ask how as a POW he could help anyone. Someone needs to help him…and yet, he created a type of tapping system so he and the other POW’s in solitary confinement could communicate. Even in the darkness, he found a way to lift the burden of others.
I also find it helpful to remember the some counsel from Neal A. Maxwell, about how our Savior reached out to others in the midst of his suffering:
“If we use Jesus as a model in the midst of the suffering about which we’re speaking, then it is also noteworthy that even in the midst of his exquisite agony he managed to have compassion for those nearby who were then suffering much, though much less than he—those on the adjoining crosses or about him below the cross. How marvelous it is when we see people who are not so swallowed up in their own suffering that they cannot still manage sympathy, even empathy, for those who suffer far, far less. How many of us here may have undergone the embarrassment of being comforted by those who had more reason to be comforted than we? Yet we recognize in that act of theirs a saintliness to which we would so gladly aspire.” http://speeches.byu.edu/?act=viewitem&id=1022&tid=7
How does this translate to our everyday lives? For me it goes something like this: I am a working mom of 5 kids, going to therapy twice a week (with all the emotional turmoil that involves)… so I do not feel obligated to take meals, or help someone clean their house because I REALLY do not have time. However, I know I can help in other ways. I pray and ask for help to be aware of those who are suffering… then I can call or email, maybe drop off flowers. I can offer a sincere, “How are you?” (These are all things that I would have loved for someone to do for me.) I find when I reach out to others my own burden is not removed, but it is lightened.
Another obstacle to helping others is “I don’t know what to say.” This is a big one. I admit, years ago, I fell into the same trap. My wonderful niece, who was only 16 years old, got a brain tumor and the prognosis was poor. I was crushed by the sorrow of one so young facing death and I didn’t know what to say to her. So I didn’t say anything, until right before she died. I apologized for my weakness. I will always regret that. From my own pain, I have learned how I could have better dealt with this situation and virtually any other where someone is suffering. Would you like to know the secret?
What if I told you all you really need to do is listen?. Could you do that? Of course! Everyone can do that. The hard part is resisting the urge to say something to try and make it better. I know this and I still have to resist the urge sometimes, but I remind myself how much listening means to me. Little things like a sincere, “how are you?” Or “I’m so sorry you are hurting,” mean the world to me. It really does not take much to convey to someone that you care.
I know that at times this won’t feel like enough, but please believe me you don’t need answers, and in trying to ‘fix it’ you can make a person feel worse, so just listen. Imagine a familiar scenario with me to see how powerful listening can be.
Imagine that someone close to you has died. Which statement is more comforting: ‘he’s in a better place’ or ‘I’m sorry for your loss, would you like to talk about it?’ The first statement carries the underlying message ‘so stop feeling sorry for yourself,’ The second statement says, ‘It’s understandable that you are hurting. I care about you.’
“Compassion, in its root meaning, signifies “to suffer with, or alongside.” They then point out how when Job’s friends first came to comfort him, they did not recognize him due to a disfiguring illness. What did they do? They sat with him for a week and no one spoke. The Given’s explain:
“. . .Job’s friends do what genuine friends are called to do: their actions seem little enough, but they are sublimely great. They “suffer with”; they participate in Job’s anguish.”
I love that. I also love this passage because the Given’s go on to relate this to our relationship with God. Remember my spiritual earthquake? I am still working on the rebuilding process. For those who hurt and feel alone as I have, here is something that comforts me. The Savior felt alone too.
Remember when He was in Gethsemane and the apostles slept? He woke them up, but they fell asleep again. But his loneliness was even greater than that. Again, the Givens that helped me understand this. They said:
“Peter, of course, had promised Jesus he would never leave His side, never deny, never forsake Him. Yet before Christ endured t first of His physical tortures, His friends had fled, and the chief of His disciples had abandoned Him to face the night of horror alone.”
My hope is that we can learn to better bear one another’s burdens so that none of us need to face our personal ‘nights of terror’ alone. But while we wait for a Good Samaritan to arrive and bind our wounds, we can take comfort in knowing that Christ has also been the one lying wounded and lonely on the side of the road.