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How to rescue a friend

An acquaintance of mine, “Janine”, was diagnosed with breast cancer a few months ago, and is currently undergoing chemotherapy.  With great concern, our mutual friend, “Laura”, said to me, “Janine is handling the situation much too well.  As a result, her children are placing the same demands on her that they always have.  They are learning nothing. They have no sensitivity to Janine’s condition, whatsoever, and really, it’s Janine’s own fault because she’s not being honest about her pain.  I’ve thought about it, and I’m going to tell her and her children what’s what.”

I give you this scenario as a classic example, not so much of meddling, because after all, Laura loves Janine, and this is her honest attempt to correct what she perceives to be a grave wrong.  But if it proceeded as planned, what it would more accurately be, is a lost opportunity for Laura to really help her friend. Why?  Because Laura is not experiencing the illness, and what’s best for Laura has little bearing on what’s best for Janine.

We all have the very human tendency to take over when someone else is sick, injured, or suffering.  Except in extreme cases, this is mostly a noble and endearing quality.  We want to take them aside, tell them what they should do, how to manage their households, their doctors, their illnesses.  Instead, we are often burdening them with repetition (heard the same thing from 20 other people) as well as offering confusing treatments and remedies that have most likely already been ruled out by professionals.  So the sick and disabled are forced to repeat themselves time and again just to educate us.  We rush into someone else’s void because we see ourselves as the teachers, the ones with strength.  But really, are we?  I’m not talking about a mentally unstable friend, or a friend who is extremely medicated and completely bedridden.  I’m talking about anyone’s good friend, neighbor, or family member who has received a devastating blow.  What is the right way to show your support?

Answers 1-10 on a priority basis:

Listen.  Listen.  Listen.  Listen.  Listen.  Listen. Listen.  Listen.  Listen.  Listen.

This list will only seem obvious if you are not a good listener. Listening is hard work.  And for most of us, it is far from the first instinct.  Listening is a highly evolved art, a masterful spiritual technique requiring a conscious abandonment of ego and the equally conscious acquisition of restraint.  Many times we think we are listening when in fact we are simply forcing ourselves not to talk, not to say anything, although we continue to think it—our minds racing ever onward to figure out what we will say next—what advice we will impart, what life-saving wisdom and knowledge we will offer.  This is not all bad.  In its own way, this mad search for advice is the desire to teach and rescue a loved one.  But the truth is, in such a scenario, the life-saving wisdom and knowledge that we are searching for, will likely not come from us at all, but from the person we think we are rescuing.

Wisdom and knowledge are not the products of a noisy, racing mind.  They are the products of a process—of an experience.  If you have been through such an experience, then you already know that the best thing you can do is to listen.  In this post’s initial scenario, the primary person in the process is Janine, not Laura.  Janine has received the diagnosis.  Janine has the family that must adapt to the diagnosis and the treatment.  The reason that her friend, Laura, must listen and learn, instead of talk and act, is that in this scenario, Janine is the teacher and Laura the student. Not the reverse.  Even if Laura had experienced cancer before, it is unlikely that she would have experienced it in the same way, in the same hospital, with the same doctors, medications, treatment schedules—not to mention the same children, husband, personality traits and personal needs.  So Laura is not qualified to decide with any accuracy how Janine should deal with her specific situation or how Janine’s reaction will affect the family members she so loves.

Instead, Laura should visit Janine and listen. Listening is the greatest gift we can give a friend who is suffering, whether they or their immediate loved ones are suffering from a disease, a marital problem, financial distress, or other major loss.  Our tendency to rush in and save the day with all our knowledge or pseudo-knowledge, is an instinct that should put us immediately on guard against ourselves.  It is an instinct so fundamental to most people, however, that it must be looked squarely in the eye and actively resisted. I know this firsthand.

When my son was gravely ill, his blood counts were abysmal, and we could no longer attend church. Unfortunately, the compulsion of many people to attend Sunday services regardless of active colds, flu, bronchitis, etc., turns even the solace of church into a life-threatening situation for those who need it most.  Since my son was so dependent on my health, I had to avoid crowds also.  This continued for four years.

Enter our Pastor, Father Jim.  We weren’t crazy about seeing Father Jim at first, because he would basically just sit and listen. At first we interpreted this as an inability to know what to do.  But time and again, he listened with great patience to our sense of alienation and anger, especially the anger of my son who was so frightened and confused.  Instead of imposing all sorts of pat advice and canned theology to our situation, he processed what we were saying and allowed our experience to inform him.  The sign of a true experience is when you have been changed by it.  Father Jim was as much changed by our experience as we were by his patience and humility.

Father Jim isn’t the only one who listened.  We were truly blessed. What we learned through it all was that, in any devastating situation, the most important thing of all is to have worthy witnesses.  Friends whose ability to listen and process what you are saying is vast and honest.  Friends who will quiet their minds, abandon their judgement, and drop their agenda in exchange for a truly mutual experience–allowing you to be heard.  The listener is the one who rescues. The listener is the healer.

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