I ran across a friend in a parking lot a couple of nights ago. We're members of the same church but she hasn't attended with any regularity for several years. She struggled as a parent of young children. Seemed to be missing some basic instincts for controlling a toddler. We tried to help her set boundaries and be kind but firm. (And by "we," I mean "we the church." Personally, I have more questions than answers and am not much for taking on the role of mentor.)
Then she was a single mother with troubled children. We tried to help her through the tough times during her divorce.
Then she ran into financial problems. We tried to help her out. It was an opportunity to do more than simply throw money at someone's problems. We could take her under our wing and offer her financial advice. Maybe help her establish a budget and stick to it.
Then she disappeared. Apparently, she didn't appreciate our helpfulness. She told me she lost her home and her car and sank deep into despair during that time. She said she is just now coming out of it. She's doing better. I see her positive self-talk on Facebook -- "Today is a good day and I'm not going to let anything or anyone get me down!" She updated me on her still troubled children. She told me she has no use for people who are phony friends. (I wondered if I fit that definition in her mind, but didn't ask.) People don't know your whole story. They think they could do better in your situation, but they don't really understand it.
As we talked, she hinted at abuse in her early years. It was the first I knew about it, although I'm not surprised. Perhaps the most vulnerable thing she told me is that she has taken up cigarettes. (I already suspected that; it's a small town.) Our church doesn't approve of smoking. Her admission may have been a sort of test. I don't know if I passed. I've already lost much ground with her because I'm the town library director and she has unreturned library items at her house and I once asked her about them. Usually she ducks when she sees me coming, even though I have long given up on ever seeing those items again and have moved on to other challenges. This time I caught her in a situation where she couldn't easily escape. We weren't far into our conversation at all before she brought up the library material. I wish I could remove the library materials from her association with me. I wish I could erase some of the pain in her life, particularly in regard to well-meaning people who crushed her spirit. For this round, however, the best I could do was practice my skills of active listening.
Ah, you say, but I could have said this or done that or steered the conversation here. Maybe you could have done that. What I could do and did do was listen. There have already been plenty of people with things to say to her. Those messages have left her wounded rather than healed. She doesn't need additional hurtful words and I couldn't be sure I could say anything guaranteed to lift her up rather than tear her down further. She offered a hug as we parted and I was glad to return it.
Yesterday I mentioned to a couple of people that one of my friends is very generous. This friend is also poor, underemployed, cohabiting with his fiancee, ignorant in certain areas, and has anger management issues which consistently lead to other problems. Studies have shown that poor people are often more generous than those better off. My friend is a good example of that phenomenon. He is genuinely generous in spirit and had given time and effort to help a project involving my two companions succeed. When one of them made a face and said, "Yes, I suppose he is, but he sure has other problems," I had to do a little anger management of my own. What ungracious words from one of the least generous, most self-promoting "Christian" people I know toward someone who showed up to help without promise of reward. I waited a couple of beats before responding. She was no longer listening by the time I quietly said, "Don't we all."
This morning, I asked in a group setting if there was any good news concerning an unemployed person not present. The response was negative. The further comments were more negative. He says he's trying to find work but our reporter doubts he is trying very hard. Someone else jumped in and talked about the need for persistence when looking for work. I tried to suggest that being terminated from a job and having multiple job applications rejected can bring on debilitating discouragement. In response, I was peppered with more advice about the value of persistence. An anecdote was offered by someone who can testify to the value of persistence. Not a single person in the group expressed empathy for the unemployed person dealing with discouragement. I regretted having asked about him. Being completely unsuccessful at stirring up any empathy for him after several attempts, I finally gave up and changed the subject.
There's one more thing in every person's story about which we have no clue. We don't know what it's like to struggle with the particular problems of the particular children my friend is trying to raise as a single mother, particularly with the history of abuse she carries. We don't know what it's like to carry the particular pain my unemployed friend carries. We don't have their personality and history. We think we could and would do better if we were in their shoes. But we have never been and will never be in their shoes. We will always be in ours, with our personality, our background, our personal baggage, not theirs.
Stop being negative about the negative people. It's a reminder I need to review often. I'm glad for the example of a generous spirit my poor, underemployed, ignorant, "sinner" friend shows me. I would do well to emulate it.
The biggest question this makes me ask is, Why do I have to look outside the church to find such an example? And why is it so difficult to stir up empathy for others among Christians?