(Part 2 in my series on what it is like to talk with people about pain and the awkward (pt 1 – click here), awful (today) and awesome (up next) results.)
It was one of the many, many times I’ve been sitting in a hospital waiting room while Jeff was in a major surgery, and I was talking with one of the many, many people who have visited me during these times and tried to bring comfort. And while I was grateful for the effort, it went horribly, horribly off the rails.
As he sat down, he began talking. And talking. And talking. (Let me preface this by saying I’m a pretty good listener. A decent conversationalist, able and willing to do healthy give and take. This story isn’t about me wanting to monopolize a conversation but about what was appropriate considering the situation.) At first, given our context, I couldn’t believe he didn’t really ask me how I was doing or feeling, beyond just the obligatory greeting. So the first time he took a breath I decided to try and volunteer some of my story. If you know me or have ever read this blog in the past, then you know I am kind of honest about heart and spiritual stuff. I didn’t go all Job on him, lamenting from the darkest places of my soul, but I was describing something of my fear and weariness and grief – as I thought was appropriate for a hospital waiting room. I assumed he would be interested and able at least to let me say what I needed to say and at least, tell me, “I’m so sorry.”
Um, I was wrong. He looked at me, not with rejection, (thank goodness) but with confusion. Like an actor must on stage when a fellow actor deviates from the script. He had no idea where to go or what to do with what I had just said.
So he began doing what many… so many have done with me in conversation when the topic of my husband’s cancer and what it has done to our lives comes up. He continued talking. And talking. And talking.
After a few tries to join the conversation, I just stopped talking to see if he would notice. He didn’t. For well over 30 minutes. At first it was sort of comical. I thought I was having an out-of-body experience, wondering where the hidden camera was. And then it just started to hurt. Because I was having to listen to him when I should have been given the gift to talk. Because I actually needed my intellectual bandwidth to manage my own stuff and he was taking it from me. Because in a moment when I was supposed to be loved, I wasn’t. And it hurt.
My guess as to what he was doing? I have several theories. First, he could have been trying run out the clock on our conversation – and by not giving me space to talk, he was avoiding having to go to an uncomfortable place spiritually or relationally. Second, he may have been working with the good intention that keeping my mind busy, off my circumstance and a few moments of distraction would be helpful. (I’ve been surprised to realize that many pastoral visits seem to operate from this mindset.) Third, he may have thought that his words were actually helping, that in that moment what I really needed was more input to help me process my pain. Fourth, he could have just been terribly un-self-aware, not paying attention to how I was receiving him and clueless about what I might have been feeling or needing.
I suspect there is another, more-common-than-one-might-think reason as to why he so epically failed in the comforting category, however. And it is a reason I have experienced often as I move through conversations with people about my husband’s cancer and what it feels like for me. I think I scared him. Oh, not me directly, but my situation. Because if God loves me and I’ve been a relatively faithful servant of his for years now, and He could let this horrible thing happen in my life…then He just might let it happen to him too. Or to someone he loves. And that can be a very scary thought. A paradigm-shifting, theology-busting thought that many aren’t ready to handle. A God who lets (and might even cause) bad things happen to those He loves.
And so I find myself periodically confronted with people who hurt me with their words, who shut me out of the conversation about my situation (ironic) because they are afraid of where things might go. These people refuse to let me communicate honestly about how I am doing and feeling by saying things like, “Let’s just focus on the positive.” (meaning, let’s not talk about the negative possibilities) Or, “I know God will heal Jeff.” (which shuts down whole streams of conversation ) Or, “It will all work out for good.” (again meaning, let’s not talk about the negative possibilities) While I appreciate and value faith-filled positive folks, what I’m talking about are the times some are unable or unwilling to participate in conversations that don’t follow a specific script. They seem unable or unwilling to believe God might just defy their expectations in this situation and break someone’s heart. And that He would still be loving in that moment of profound pain and disappointment.
Then there are the people who want to talk about things like God’s glory and what a gift it can be to suffer for Him. (They are almost always young folk, without any real suffering or significant life experience behind them.) They quote lots of verses or a book they’ve read – and often go into preaching mode instead of conversation mode. (Which works in the pulpit…in the hospital waiting room or coffee shop? Not so much.) In their head-lead desire to be theologically accurate, they end up being heart-less, rejecting the very Biblical imperative of being human and compassionate. (For the record, I know God is good. I know most circumstances have the potential to bring about some good. But there are days I don’t feel very good about it all. If theology can’t meet me here, if it can’t allow God to be sovereign and me to be human at the same time, it is lacking.) They hide behind an impressive theology because they are afraid of a God they can’t understand or put in a box. And they are afraid of those who challenge their paradigm.
I am learning compassion for those I meet whom I scare – and I am learning to be patient with the multitude of words that come forth from their mouths, unchecked by their brains and uninformed by their hearts. I know they are trying to help and do what they know to do. But sometimes, I just need to get out of the way because a conversation with them in the wrong place at the wrong time, like a hospital waiting room, can be just terribly awful.
Pr. 10:19 When words are many, sin is not absent, but he who holds his tongue is wise.
Job 6:26 Do you think that you can reprove words, when the speech of a despairing man is wind?