At Least Try Not to Say “At Least”
Ever been in crisis, and some genuinely caring soul tries to lessen your pain with “at least…”?
At least you have other children.
At least you have one good eye.
At least you’ve still got a job.
It’s perfectly natural for those who care to want to relieve another’s pain. Church members and leaders are often serious about “weeping with those who weep.” Yet instead, they can wind up trying to minimize the tears of another. Talking someone out of their felt distress isn’t sharing the pain; it’s keeping the conversation shallow.
I know full well my own capacity to offer quick-fix phrases. As a hospital chaplain I’m continually monitoring my inner responses to sometimes horrific personal stories. I find God’s promised presence appears clearer when I offer a listening ear and a taste of shared hope.
Internally, what I’d really like to do is offer a fix-it phrase, pray a short prayer of healing, and depart. Instead, in my better moments, I choose to stay.
After my wife Caryl’s death, I often heard, “At least she’s not suffering anymore.” And trust me, I did not want her back with me in her suffering condition. But the fact of her ended suffering did not address my own realization that I’m still here, and she’s not.
Christians “carrying each other’s burdens” is a mark of transformed people, believers touched by the gentle compassion of Jesus. His encounters with hurting people are marked by asking what the sufferer’s need is, giving voice to someone trying to make sense of their plight. He doesn’t ever say, “Just get over it,” or, “Everything happens for a reason.” Jesus allows himself to be interrupted, attentively responding to an infringed someone who can easily be ignored by passersby.
Sometimes, in harsh times of loss, grief, trauma, family distress, or financial crisis, we simply need a listening ear. Such listening is not totally passive. Active listening is engaged and interactive. It’s hard work.
We all inwardly hunger for such connectedness. Those who will listen to us, holding back their judgments and free advice, are treasured gifts from God. You’ve probably heard that Job’s supportive friends did their best ministry when they just sat in silence with Job in his plight. The “windy words” that followed didn’t prove to be nearly as helpful to Job’s soul.
When a struggler privileges us with hard-to-hear challenges, we are being offered an opportunity to find a word of hope, a reframing, a message of “you are not alone.” We have, in genuine listening, tools within our spiritual toolbox—tools like a special Scripture, a shared personalized prayer, a gentle touch or eye contact, a promise to check back again.
Yes, sometimes counsel, words of advice, even interventions into destructive behavior, need to be given. But not until we’ve heard—really heard—the story.
You can probably name someone who is a true sojourner with you. Someone who allows you to rant and vent and shake your fist, blowing the chaff from the wheat and leaving only the good seed (that’s farming image you might need to google!).
Likewise, you are equipped to respond to another’s crisis with kindness and support when you show up and listen. God’s spirit is there with us, even when we don’t have easy quick-fix answers.