Some of the people who have blessed me most in life are the ones who simply listen.
Instead of trying to offer all the answers they don’t have, they offer an open ear. These are the ones who sympathize even when they can’t empathize, the ones who don’t brush me off or try to change the topic.
I’ve grown up in a family affected by mental illness and special needs. From dyslexia to depression, from autism to anxiety, numerous disabilities have made my family different. And because those caused certain challenges that few people faced, my life was always different.
It was clear to me. My sister’s mania, my brother’s suicidal tendencies, and my own irrational anxiety were something I’d never seen in anyone else. It was a pain that lay under the surface of my life, a peculiar brokenness that I tried to hide.
As I’ve grown, I’ve realized that, while I’m not free to discuss all the details, the struggles of my life are mine to share. I’ve opened up to some of the people I call my friends, being as honest as possible when the topic of my family comes up, just as it has many nights at church.
“My siblings… aren’t normal,” I stammer, trying to figure out how to put to words the difficulty of mental illness while respecting the privacy of my family.
My friend responded that her siblings weren’t normal either.
I told her about my sister’s episodes of mania.
She said her siblings were crazy too.
Finally, I used the words. “My siblings are mentally ill.”
Blank stares around the room. Empty silence. Perhaps an awkward apology.
That one friend didn’t give up. She still tries to convince me that her siblings are weird like mine. And every time, I try to hold my tongue, to not shout or cry or snap at her and her normal-brained family.
I know she doesn’t intend to hurt me, but she does.
Those who normalize a person’s circumstances minimize their pain. Such a reaction says, “I don’t understand, and I don’t care to find out more.” It makes assumptions without checking to see if they’re true. It oversimplifies complex emotions and situations in such a way that implies a lack of interest, care, and love.
The very idea that the monstrous isolating experiences we have faced are just a “normal” part of life digs a crater into our hearts. We find ourselves sad or perhaps bitter that either our well-meaning friends have no clue what we’re experiencing or they simply don’t care. Yet even deeper is the sting of wondering whether our grief is legitimate, of questioning whether we have a right to feel pain over something that seems so insignificant to others.
If our experiences are truly trivial, then surely the pain we feel is nothing but an expression of an over-dramatic self-centered heart.
God Knows and Loves
Thank God, he is merciful and gracious, abounding in steadfast love to us. In reality, all our suffering is “light and momentary” compared to the glory of heaven that he has secured for us by his blood. And yet he doesn’t condemn us for our tears. Rather, he tenderly counts each one.
You have kept count of my tossings;
put my tears in your bottle.
Are they not in your book?
Hurting people have an overwhelming yearning to be loved and known. In the midst of our pain, when we feel that no one understands what we are experiencing, it is tempting to believe that if only someone did understand, then their understanding would provide the comfort we crave.
But no human being can fully know and love us. We ourselves couldn’t possibly see the all depths of our hearts or make sense of the yearnings of our soul. This special life-giving, soul-searching, thirst-quenching role is reserved for our Creator, our Savior, our Sustainer and King.
Christ is the answer for hurting hearts. He alone can satisfy our weary souls and promise healing for our minds and bodies. He alone can secure our spot in heaven, where his own hand will wipe the tears from our eyes. He alone gives us life and hope.
Emulate Christ’s Compassion
As brothers and sisters, our role is simply to point each other to him. When we are striving to live as he calls us and to love as he has loved us, then we will emulate his loving, patient, gentle nature as a natural byproduct of our affection for him. We have been blessed with the church so that we might be in community with one another, to love each other as fellow members of the family of God.
We don’t always have to understand. We don’t have to have all the answers. Offering a quick shower of Bible verses or nice life thoughts or a personal anecdote in passing might make us feel good about ourselves, but it probably isn’t what the hurting people in our lives are yearning for.
What hurting people do need is love, demonstrated by the presence of a friend. Perhaps the best way to bless the hurting is to simply sit, and listen, and hear. To break through the shallow relationships of our busy lives and ask the heart-probing, vulnerable, tough questions. To seek to know and understand, but above all, to simply love.
Maybe that looks as simple as a hug or a prayer or a cup of coffee.
Regardless of the differing levels of intimacy we will share with various people in different circumstances, our goal in our interactions with the hurting should be to emulate the compassion of Christ.
Hurting people are not just a burden, and they need to know that. They need to see actions driven by love, not by the “check off the boxes” attitude so prevalent in our busy, artificial culture. They need genuine love and compassion, just as they would find from Jesus himself.
The love we should have for our spiritual siblings is one that will cause us to weep with those who weep and to bear each others burdens. Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead, and yet the sting of death was so real that he wept with Mary and Martha before doing so.
If the hope of the gospel does not ignore the reality of pain in this present life, neither should we.
We cannot fully love and know each other, but Jesus can. With his Spirit in us, we can spread that love to others as we open our ears and our hearts to the broken. May our love allow us to share in the wounds of the hurting and never neglect to bring them to the healer.
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. 1 Corinthians 1:3-4