I know that generally, people mean well. Really, they do, but there’s some real ham-handedness going on out there. This week I’ve had a hand-full of people mention how they cringe when they are offered cliches when what they were really looking for was some compassion or understanding.
Okay, okay, I know not everyone is a counselor, nor should they be but can we not say to people who have just lost a loved one, “Well, at least they’re in a better place,” or to someone who’s struggling in a relationship, “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger,” or how about my most loathed, “It is what it is.” Ugh!!!!
That last one frosts me because I heard it said too many times from someone who used it as an excuse for his ineptness, his tardiness and his apathy. Schedule a meeting (you’re supposed to lead) and not show up? Well, it is what it is. Disappoint and frustrate a dozen people because you continually over-promise and under-deliver? Well, it is what it is. Actually, no. What it is is rude. It’s a cop-out. It’s lame. Own it and treat people better, buddy.
The words we use are a good indication of what’s important to us. Want someone to buck up? Tell them Kelly Clarkson’s ‘if it doesn’t kill you, it makes you stronger’ line. (not that she’s the originator of the line) Want someone to get over grieving already? Tell them their loved one is in a better place. Sick and tired of someone being sick and tired? Give a flip story about how you just get up and get on with the day, as if that’s so easy for everyone. Usually our trite responses just make our listener wish they hadn’t said anything.
Everyone will be in a situation in which we just don’t know what to say, but I vote for saying something kind and loving as opposed to trite and harsh. Saying “I don’t know” or “I’m so sorry you’re struggling with that’ is better than posturing that you’ve figured their problem out and have a flip answer for them. Sometimes we want to rush people to the end of the story. We want people to just get over it already. Don’t we?
Many, many years ago, I went through a particularly long relapse of Chronic Fatigue. Throw in a few other complications and I was barely slogging through my days. It was obvious I needed help and there were those who wanted to help so a cleaning crew of ladies came in and went over my house with invigorating energy. It was such a boon. Wanting to thank each of them personally, I called each one over a series of days and expressed my gratitude. The first few I called were confusingly cool to me on the phone. A few more were a bit warmer but I was puzzled by their clipped “you’re welcomes.” Attributing it to anything else but my inklings, I made one last call and out it came: after they left my house, they went out for coffee and all decided that what I really needed to do was tackle one little project at a time. Other bits of advice came out but what I heard loud and clear was judgment. I didn’t hear compassion for being an ill young mom. I didn’t hear any kind of leeway given for having to tackle these things and more while I feel like I have the flu every day. It was just a ‘you-really-should….’ list that just plain hurt.
Experiences like those make us clam up. They make us determine never to reveal a need again. They make us distrustful, because what’s behind our words are values and assumptions and those can lead to some profound misunderstandings. Misunderstandings lead to hurt. When someone is told something as unhelpful as the above comments, we hear what they’re really saying loud and clear and it’s not loving, kind or wise.
As the years tick by and the hurts stack up, so do the occasions where people get it right, thankfully. I think of my neighbor Sherri who had only a faint hint that I wasn’t the image of health and one day she came onto the yard to see me barely awake and as limp as last night’s spaghetti. God bless her, she didn’t ask anything, she just took in the scene of two little boys running around and said, “I’ll have the boys at my house this afternoon, go get some rest. I’ll bring them home in time for dinner.” I could have cried. No judgment, just help. It still brings tears to my eyes. That scene is a model for me that I refer to often. I don’t always get it right, but I try, and it helps to know that when people disappoint us on earth, we can lean into a Savior who was an expert at suffering. He knew it all: betrayal, pain, sleeplessness, rejection….and he chose it.
Everyone’s going to have a weak day or week or month or year and when we do, I want to lean into a Lord who gets it and not rely too much on people who don’t. I also am reassured that there ARE folks out there who know exactly how to come alongside others and just do what needs to be done, with kindness and love. So if you know someone who wouldn’t be helped by a ham-handed remark, keep it to yourself and reach for something a little more gentle. Better yet, just listen without judgment – one of the most beautiful gifts you can ever give to another.