On Being a Consolation

by John Pealrstein

“If you give something to one in need, let the cheerfulness of your face precede your gift, and comfort his sorrow with kind words. When you do this, by your gift the gladness of his mind surpasses even the needs of his body”

— St. Isaac the Syrian, The Ascetical Homilies of St. Isaac the Syrian

I have been wanting to write about how to console and comfort for some time now. I feel that it is an important idea to talk about as it is not something that comes naturally to all people. Though some have a natural gift of empathizing with others which gives them the ability to comfort and console without as much effort, this is not the case for everyone. Some have to put more effort into honing this skill. No matter which group you are a part of, we are all called to be a consolation to others. We know this because we are created in the image of the God who is The Great Consolation of mankind. There are suffering people all around us.

We live in a world of broken hearts. People around you are suffering whether you recognize it or not. These people need a kind word or even just a silent listener. To put it more poetically, in the words of my spiritual father, some people just need someone to “gently stroke their brow.”

Before I talked about how to console the broken-hearted, I want to discuss how not to do this. Both in my own life and the shared experiences of others I have seen/heard of some very poor attempts of speaking to those in need of comfort. I do not want to spend too much time on the negative, so I will tell you a story the illustrates a more grievous failure to comfort and then discuss a very common failure which has the appearance of piety, but in actuality is also likely to wound the recipient.

My wife just recently told me about an incident that occurred to someone she had seen on youtube. She follows a couple with several kids. The mother had just given birth to a set of twins which had to be placed in the NICU. The mother had been traveling back and forth between home and the NICU. Lord only knows the amount of stress and the range of emotions she had been experiencing through all of this. In one of her videos, when she was getting to hold both babies for the first time she broke down and cried. In the comments, someone told her that “she shouldn’t be crying- she should be thankful that her babies are alive.”

This comment is tragic on many levels. First, this assumes that his suffering mother is ungrateful. Secondly, since the comment is based on this false assumption it becomes an attack on the already broken heart. Lastly, this comment takes a truth- that you need to be thankful for what God has given you- and uses it as a weapon. Not everything true needs to be said at any given time. My spiritual father said that the term for that is “truthing people to death.” This comment, far from being a comfort, had the potential to wound the already suffering woman. Please don’t do this.

The story above is a pretty evident failure and one that I have thankfully not experienced personally. However, this next form of failed consolation is something that I see all the time and I believe it is because it has the sound of Christian piety. Here is an illustration of what I mean.

You may have found yourself calling a friend and sharing that you have had a bout with some kind of sickness that has run amok in your home. You are exhausted and the kids are really struggling because you have had to force them to rest. Everything feels like it is falling apart. After you have finished your monologue the person on the other end of the line says “God is in control and this is all for good.”

You can take the paragraph above and insert any kind of hurt or struggle and apply the same “pious response.” It fails in each case. Sometimes those “pious” responses are even used in more tragic situations such as someone who has shared the terminal diagnosis of a loved one. In these situations, I give these people the benefit of the doubt. I think that most of the time these folks are just trying to comfort and don’t know-how. I really believe that the times I have heard this in my own life it has come out of the lips of those who do love and pray for me. This is not malicious. I am writing this not to judge those who have said such things, but rather to give a better way for you to be a brother or sister to those that open up to you.

Now, moving on from the negative, let us look at some of the tools that are needed to properly console others. There are three that I think are the basics- Discernment, honesty, and empathy.

Discernment. To properly comfort others you must have some level of discernment. There are a variety of levels of hurt ranging from financial difficulties to tragic losses and everything in between. There are also an endless variety of personalities that you will encounter that will require different forms of communication. You cannot approach every situation with the same type of communication

Honesty. When I speak of honesty here, I am thinking of being truly human. The poor response of “pious truths” is what I would consider being less than honest and less than human. When someone has a bad day sometimes the best response would be to say “wow, that is rough.” There is nothing wrong with, and I would add, everything right with an honest and human appreciation of the hurt that someone has experienced. The time to give guidance may come later, but at the moment, be honest, be human.

Empathy. This is vital and, in reality, it is possibly the foundation on which to build discernment and honesty. I would say, that if you can empathize, then you will more easily be able to discern and be honest. Empathy is a skill that we must hone. Empathy is important because we do not all go through the same things and yet we must be able to comfort someone in a situation that we may have never faced ourselves. They say that one of the benefits of reading, fiction, in particular, is that it helps you develop the ability to empathize by placing you in the mind of the “sufferer” in the story. Whether or not your read fiction you must find ways to learn to empathize. You must be able to put yourself in their place to the best of your ability. Sometimes this is easier than others such as in the most tragic of situations. In those cases, you may not be able to imagine how they feel, but that in itself is a good place to be because, by saying that, you have just realized that they are in the depths of heartbreak and that will help shut your mouth from foolish utterances and instead lead you to be the silent listener whose only words are in the form of empathetic tears.

However, sometimes we must empathize in a place where we feel like the situation is trivial. Maybe a flat tire doesn’t bother you at all, but for others, that may wreck their day. Or, maybe you are dealing with a child who lost their favorite toy or had a friend stop playing with them. These appear to be nothing compared to the sufferings of your adult self, but they can break the heart of a little one. In either circumstance, you are still required to empathize. Or, further, you may be dealing with a drug addict whose problems are apparently self-inflicted. In this case, we are still called on to be empathetic. My spiritual father has said over and over again that you have no idea what people have experienced that lead them to their current condition nor do you have a clue as to how hard they may be trying even though they outwardly appear to be doing nothing. Empathy requires you to leave the Judgment in God’s hands. God doesn’t see any of our hurts as unimportant. He condescends to us all.

I want to share one last example which comes from my wife’s experience. She was 30 weeks pregnant and had to find a new midwife. She was in a rough spot and didn’t know where to look. It was an emotional situation all the way around. She called up two separate friends to share with. The first friend, after hearing the situation, said “it will all work out.” I want to be clear that this friend meant well, but my wife went away feeling worse than before making the phone call. She then shared her grief with another friend who, after hearing, expressed empathy and affirmed the difficulty of the situation, and told her she would be praying. My wife felt heard and as a result felt comforted.

Final thoughts. Next time someone opens up to you, whether it be about how hard their day at work was or about their husband’s recent diagnosis of stage 4 lung cancer, be that gentle stroke on the brow that they need. If you don’t know what to say then just listen. And no matter what, refrain from harmful “truths.” Do not tell them that it’s all going to work out. That is not the time for that. Just listen and place yourself in their shoes the best you can. When you effectively comfort and console another person you become closer to that person and it deepens your relationship. And, as Christ has said, “ Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me.”

Suggestions to help hone your skills.

  • think about how you like to be comforted.
  • read the Scriptures and pay close attention to how God comforts His people
  • find someone who you know be good at comforting others and ask for advice from them
  • read the lives of the Saints

Love: 10 Uses You May Not Know

Love you! Love you, too!

These words are heard everywhere. Between friends at the shopping mall or school parking lot as they take leave of one another, spoken into cell phones (loud enough for all to hear) or typed in the comment section of a million facebook posts. When this “Love you!” trend first started, I was disgusted and vowed not to partake of the casual, insincere tossing about of the word “love”. It seemed to trivialize the meaning.

However, I have lately changed my mind. Maybe the addition of the word “love” to our everyday vocabulary isn’t a bad thing.  Maybe we need all the love tossed about in this world we can get. Because love is a thing. A real thing. It’s powerful and mighty and is one of the last defenses we have against despair. Why not pass it around to as many people as we can?

It was many years ago when my husband and I were in the midst of parenting our young children. Back then, it seemed that as a society, we tried to shelter children from too much adult information or ideas which would confuse them during the tender stages of becoming people. I held to thisbutterfly_flower_02_hd_pictures belief and still think that parents should be the filter through which young children learn important life lessons. That being said, communication is tricky, even with one’s own children. During this fledgling stage of our family, we were friends with several couples who were in the same boat. We always shared the happy news of expected babies and celebrated recent births with our children. Things got a little complicated when an unmarried friend got pregnant, the kids were curious how this worked since she wasn’t married like the other parents in our lives. It was too early for “the birds and the bees” or any other weighty  discussions, so I told them that she and her boyfriend loved each other…therefore, a baby. My youngest son apparently latched onto this theory, because he applied it later when trying to understand another new situation. We had a friend who miscarried when she was 6 months along in her pregnancy. My son knew she had been pregnant and when we told him the grievous news, he immediately questioned, “why would the baby die?”. As my mind worked to choose the right words, I saw the look of sad realization dawn in his eyes. He thought he had the answer. “The mommy and daddy stopped loving each other?”

 

 In his mind, it was love between the parents that created that new baby and without the love, the baby couldn’t live.

 

It was actually sound logic. After all, I told him that babies were brought into the world as a result of the parents’ love. So it would only follow that without the love…the baby couldn’t survive. I assured him that the parents did indeed still love one another and that there were reasons couples sometimes lost beloved children, but I’ve thought about his theory often throughout the years. How many other things have trouble surviving without love? Families? Relationships? Peace? Compassion? It is evident all around us. Love is so powerful, that the lack of it is making a mess of our world. What makes love so powerful? Simply put:

Love is God. And God is All Powerful

Anything is possible with Love. So I say, let’s hear more voices proclaiming love! Love everywhere, love in all things. Let’s rack our brains to come up with new uses for love…

as a lifeboat,

as a shield,

as a cocoon,

as a butterfly net,

as a remedy,

as a beacon,

as an answer.

Let’s hold one another up with love and send it shooting through throngs of strangers!

Let’s remind our children that they were created by love and that love from God will never, ever stop.

God is Love.

Love is real.

Opposite Day, Everyday!

by Michele Latham

 

The idea of Opposite Day is that everything we say or do is the opposite of what it hot-fudge-sundae-23-450x565normally is. So, saying “I love housework” on opposite day really means I hate it. And “I won’t be eating a hot fudge sundae today” means…well, you know! There are several countries which have designated unofficial holidays for Opposite Day! Kids love this way of thinking, but I think it unsettles adults a little. After all, we are creatures of habit and have had many years to establish our thoughts in a certain way.

 
The idea of opposite thinking came to mind a few week ago when I went to visit a sick friend in the hospital. The events leading up to the visit were typical of when a brother or sister is ill. I heard about the trouble this friend was having and the thought occurred to me, I should go visit her. Take her something. Let her know I’m thinking of her. So that’s what I did. Poor thing, she would be happy to have a visitor and take comfort in knowing I was praying for her.

 
I walked into her hospital room and there she was. She looked to be tired and in obvious pain. I gave her my gift and said some lame words about hoping she felt better soon. Then she spoke (softly because she had trouble breathing) and told me about a visit from a priest friend. She shared what he said about using the Jesus Prayer to get through the pain and fear she was experiencing. She was so grateful for his words. She sweetly thanked me for coming and let me kiss her cheek as I left.

 
There it was. Opposite Day.

 
I had gone to the hospital thinking I would offer her my love and encouragement, but instead God blessed me through her words. Don’t get me wrong here. I don’t doubt that God hears my prayers when I ask for her healing and I believe that showing my love for her is an act that can comfort and help. But, what I didn’t expect was the blessing I received by trying to be of service to her.

 

 

Although the commandment is “Love one another”, this love isn’t only for the recipient’s sake. It is for the giver, too. As a modern human being, I understood this commandment as a way I could make a difference for someone else. But I soon realized something important. Through loving others, God softens the heart. He makes us able to hear and learn and appreciate the light of Christ shining in all those around us.