What does it mean to actually “be there” for someone? We often check in and ask questions like:
“How’s it going?”
“How are you?”
“How can I help?”
Those questions come early in the process. When the pain and suffering is fresh and new. And we are as sincere as we know how to be when we check in.
The problem comes when our friend’s suffering lasts longer than our current capacity to grasp. After all, OUR lives have continued. Our families have had joys and adventures and challenges completely separate from this person’s life. And as we return to check in, at some point, if things don’t seem to have improved, we change our approach.
In general, we REALLY don’t like feeling powerless. And though it’s not flattering, we REALLY don’t like hearing bad reports over and over and over and over. What began as empathy turns into irritation and eventually judgment.
Why? Because we don’t know how to exist in a long-term awareness of other people’s suffering. If we have never suffered that long, or we lack a label that helps us understand it (cancer, debilitating accident, etc), then we have to explain to ourselves WHY this friend or neighbor or family member continues suffering.
What might they have done to deserve this calamity?
What else might explain why their experience is so radically different from mine?
We pull on all the stories from our childhood. Bible stories, parents’ and pastors’ explanations of why bad things happen. We need the world to make sense. And we generate a host of possible answers without even trying.
But this urgent desire to make sense of things doesn’t do our loved ones any favors. Why? Because our assessments are almost always wrong, and at best they are sorely incomplete.
Just look at Job. In the middle of his greatest suffering, his friends came to be with him. They grieved with him. They suffered in silence with him. The expressed their love for him by being present. For a period of time. Until they couldn’t any longer.
Once Job’s period of grieving and suffering extended beyond their capacity to remain in solidarity, they flipped. From silent, loyal presence to open, verbal rebuke. They “loved” him into accepting some explanation that made his suffering his fault.
They made passionate speeches and logical arguments to Job.
Ultimately, to CHANGE him. Their personal capacities to remain present in the suffering and loss were met and exceeded, and they could not bear to continue any longer. So because they were uncomfortable with HIS level of suffering and grief, they tried to talk him down.
I’d imagine that every single one of us has been that friend at least once in our lives.
Our friends need us to be better friends. And it will start by stretching the container of our capacity to mourn with those who mourn, and sit with those who need to know they are not alone.
May we all become better friends.