I know that this is a topic that could be seen as self-serving, because I’m one of those people in crisis. I also don’t want to create an air of paranoia about talking to me or anyone in this position, with the fear that you might take it wrong. I do want to broaden this to include all people who are going through, or recently have gone through a personal crisis and that would include a lot of people, besides those with life-altering diseases. This would include those who have lost close family members, kids on drugs, job failures, and the like. I also want to be clear, people who qualify as saying or doing the wrong thing, from my observations, are rare and most who do make mistakes, I don’t believe had an ill intent. I therefore see this exercise as one in education.
I am very thankful for Jerry, Kevin, Jean, Diane, Don, Craig, Christine, Curt, Karen, Kathy, and MANY others who never fail to ask me, sincerely, how I’m doing and then pause to listen. I have many who follow my blog and send me their sincere thoughts and I know that thy are praying for us. Some are even friends from the distant past. I also know that before I was sick, I mostly got this wrong. I will add one last caveat. They say, never judge how someone chooses to grieve. In the same thought, I do not mean to assume that others in crisis agree with my perspective.
- Asking, “How Are You?”—when it is not Sincere. I must be clear here; I am NOT talking about the causal bumping into someone on the street, where we say the habitual, “Hi, how are you?” To which we expect them to say in response, “Fine, how are you?” We recognize that, while that greeting may have roots in a sincere conversation from 100 years ago, now it is a simply a greeting with no sincere meaning. But if the conversation moves beyond the superficial and you ask the person in crisis how they are really doing, please pause to allow them to answer and respond appropriately to that answer. Don’t just give them a few seconds to respond, and then cut them off by saying, “Great! I’m so glad you’re doing better . . . uh, you look good.” There have been many times I’ve answered that greeting, honestly, even when I was not doing well. The response was still “Great! I’m glad you’re doing better,” no matter what I said.
- It’s Too Painful to Bring Up. Now, we are moving into a far more substantial conversation of tens of minutes and, for me personally, this has been the most difficult encounter I’ve experience. I’m talking about where I have substantive encounters with someone, they know that I’m dealing with cancer, and they spend the whole time dominating the conversation (not allowing me to say a word edgewise as a deliberate action to avoid the elephant in the room) with something that seems trivial in the grand scheme of things, for example getting road tar on their new shoe. It isn’t like I’m not interested in their shoes, I am. But never once do they bring up my cancer or allow me to, even if this encounter is the first one we’ve had since I’ve been sick. I’m not talking about where I spend the next 30 minutes going through all the nitty-gritty of my nightmare life. Being given the opportunity of a 2-minute update is all I’m asking for, but only if they are truly interested. I think the motivation for not bringing up my cancer is that some people—falsely—see it as something very personal and too painful to bring up… you know, like hemorrhoids, so they want to avoid the topic at all cost. To the sufferer (of any crisis) it—wrongly—communicates “I really don’t give a damn about you.” I can’t imagine being offended in any way by someone bringing up my cancer.
- Someone Who Doesn’t Listen but Wants to Instruct You. In Proverbs it says the following; “To answer before listening– that is folly and shame.” This is one is of the rarest (thank goodness) mistakes I’ve witnessed, and I debated about even mentioning it. However, it is the most painful. This is the situation where the person makes no effort to know what’s going on with you but makes huge assumptions about your state of mind or soul… and then gives you a mini lecture about correcting that assumed state. I know that this sounds unimageable, but I will try to put some “meat” on those bones in the form of illustrations.
In some ways, when I was in college, I was an asshole. I had a spiritual arrogance and in our little evangelical culture, it was common to see yourself as God’s gift to humanity, certainly I did. I remember a coed, who was involved in our campus ministry, losing her dad. I, without asking her any questions about how she was feeling, said to her, “Remember, keep your eyes on the Lord and then you will rise above any worldly grief.” Now that was stupid wasn’t it?
This situation can also be where people assume that you are struggling with your spiritual life, just because you have cancer, or assume that you don’t pray. The other is where you barely mentioned a bad result and thy sternly lecture you about God does miracles and that you need to trust in Him. Was I supposed to lie about a disappointing test?
Besides the drive-by evangelical spiritual abuse, which I just mentioned, the same thing can happen about mental health, “You look depressed. You need to look for rainbows.” The worst of the worst, and likewise, the rarest of the rare, is where they cast blame, “Now that you have cancer, you must have cleaned up the way you live.” What the hell does that mean? As I’ve said before, it is hard to convince some people that your bad situation (cancer, loss of a child, loss of a job) is not related to anything you did wrong (in most cases).
- Oversharing by the Victim. I am sure there are many mistakes that we “victims” make in these conversations. However, for the sake of brevity, I will talk about a couple and the first is “over-sharing.”
I am a self-confessed over-sharer. You can tell this from this blog. Many victims have a strong temptation to over-share and their thinking goes like this; if you can only explain your nightmare in enough detail, the other person would graphically feel your pain and grant you the empathy that you feel that you deserve.
Here is the problem with that idea. While there have been countless poets, writers, painters, not to mention filmmakers and others who have tried to capture a painful human experience and communicate that to others, as great as they were, they came up short.
I remember a backpacking trip I took with a group of guys out to the Rockies. We made a swooping passage (the first “out west” trip for most of us) down through Arizona. We made a stop at the Grand Canyon for a few hours. I was on the south rim snapping photo with my SLR camera. My friend, Ken, was just sitting on the edge staring down into the abyss. I asked him (knowing that he had a camera of his own) why he wasn’t taking photos. He answered that he had given up on taking photos because he had seen so many incredible places that he knew that there is no way to capture it on film.
We, as victims, must realize that there is no way that we can communicate enough for others to know our experience. So, our sharing must be carefully measured as not to exhaust the attention span of even the most well-meaning and compassionate listener.
- Egocentricism (self-centeredness) of a Crisis. It is the very nature of any personal crisis, where that crisis is so huge in your eyes, that it eclipses the lives of others. It is an easy failure for us to do the exact same thing that we find painful in others; not listening to them, not feeling their pain, and not being curious about their lives. Everyone has a least one crisis in their life and at any one moment, there is a high probability that the person who comes up to you and ask you how you are doing, is suffering as well.