The counselor in me has always had a vulnerable side when the professional hat is not worn.
I’ve been an interested and emphatic listener of others’ stories since my twenties when the Jesus story first made its impact (coincidentally or consequentially, I’m not sure). But I’ve not always been able to be a dispassionate empathetic listener. This vulnerability presents itself when I move from empathy to over-identification. The self-centered and self-protective side of my psyche hijacks the genuinely compassionate side and the fearfulness of “this sounds too close to home and could happen to me or a loved one” takes over and I am sorry I ever listened to that person’s story. I don’t know why but this does not happen when I am “clinical Dona” which is a good thing or I would have been admitted to a psych ward after my first year of practice.
I just spent three days in the hospital after getting an acute infection driven bya low white blood cell count due to chemotherapy. I spent 24 hours in the ICU and two and a half days on a regular floor. In both situations I was in better health than the patients around me and because of this I had conversations with worried and distressed family members that I would meet in the hall or waiting room. I heard stories of protracted and acute suffering and misery in a very short period of time. The empathetic listener had not turned off while I was hospitalized.
But there were times during my hospital stay that I wanted it to turn off; like when the descriptions of misery were too raw and graphic. At that point cancer would interrupt the counselor – butt her out with one quick unexpected slam – reminding her that there could be much more misery in store down the road of cancer treatment. So, after a while compassionate listening would give way to cowardly recoiling and shutdown. I would walk back to my room with more Dona-sadness than with Jack-sadness or Terri-sadness. Not pretty or admirable. Thankfully this overly anxious display of self-pity did not last long and did not keep me from praying for these folks and their distressed families.
My guess is that most of you readers are not going to be too hard on me. In most of us there is that nagging feeling and suppressed thought that suffering and loss are not that far from any of us regardless of the many precautions we take to stay them off. They blindside even the most cautious and genetically hearty of us.
In the introduction of his book, Walking with God through Pain and Suffering, Timothy Keller quotes Ernest Becker:
“I think that taking life seriously means something like this: that whatever man does on this planet has to be done in the lived truth of the terror of creation…… of the rumble of panic underneath everything. Otherwise it is false.”
So how are we to live with peace, purpose, joy, love, and hope in light of this rumble of panic? How are we to recognize a caring, loving God who is for us when at any time the shoe can drop or has already dropped? I am a novice in this world of suffering but let me offer a couple of thoughts.
David my husband says that in times of crisis we are what we have been trained to be. My experience in watching others who have walked various kinds and degrees of suffering, ranging from tragic losses to debilitating and sometimes fatal illnesses, is that getting through it required leaning on spiritual resources previously learned or acquired. I am not going to be so presumptuous as to imply that only those who rely on spiritual resources weather their tragedies well. I have read or heard inspiring stories of people who have weathered great hardship without apparently leaning on God.
But my experience in working in the US and the Middle East as well as meeting people from all over the world is that when push comes to shove it is spiritual resources that provide comfort and strength in times of critical helplessness; not perfectly or always heroically, but nonetheless “a leaning on” that brings comfort. I heard similar disclosures last week in the hospital’s halls and waiting rooms.
So, what are these spiritual resources that I hear about from the sufferer?
- Complaining to a God who is both there and not too thin skinned to take it.
- Drawing on scripture for comfort
- Developing a Biblical awareness of the myriad of sufferings addressed in the biblical text with its various antidotes.
- Receiving the practical and sacrificial helps and prayers of the church and friends that show the compassionate face of Christ, and finally,
- Acknowledging that something supernatural is at work; ideally, a healing but certainly a feeling of the Holy Spirit’s presence. THEY ARE NOT ALONE.
I, too, have been relying on the above resources; not perfectly or even consistently . In a previous post called, Chipmunk Cheeks, I mentioned the futility of expecting God to give me the grace for my grim or fearful imaginings. He has not promised to do that. He has promised to be with me in the present and give grace for that present. If I lay hold of that truth once again I will be able to be fully present with those who tell me their woeful stories of pain and grief. Only then can I be numbered as one of the spiritual resources on which they can rely. “Oh God let it be true about me.”
Oh-so-sorry to hear of your infection, Dona! Hoping by now it is in the past. (You/David should shoot out an email for all of us to pray more specifically, at those times!)
And, from experience, I concur that you are indeed a heartfelt & empathetic listener. Been on the receiving end of that! XO
I am late to the party. I heard Tim Keller quote Ernest Becker, and exploring brought me here.
Thank you, Dona, both for the gift you are and for the guide you are. My life is much better because of you. May the love, joy and encouragement which you give to others be returned to you many times over.