Have you ever found it hard to find the right words when someone shares news about misfortunes in their life? Whether it be a tragic health diagnosis, a death of a loved one, or maybe just a bad day—words can escape us. As a counselor in training, I am not immune to this. Furthermore, as a person who deeply identifies with the Catholic faith it can be tempting to have a knee-jerk response of, “I’ll pray for you,” “Sounds like an opportunity for redemptive suffering,” or worse yet, “Maybe this is an opportunity to grow in patience [insert virtue of your choice].” These phrases are all well and good, but chances are the individual possesses this knowledge already, but at the moment all they want is to be heard and understood. Just being present to a person and expressing empathy can speak volumes to a person in time of need.
It is unfortunate that we, as Christians, can sometimes fall into the trap of “over-spiritualization.” I recently came to the conclusion that I do this and more often than I’d like to admit. As someone striving to develop the skills of a professional counselor, I have been taught about boundaries, transference, and being open and receptive to whatever the client presents to us with impartiality. However, in my recent work with like-minded clients I have at times responded in the above ways. If I am honest with myself, these responses when expressed to me have not always been very encouraging—in fact sometimes they have caused me to feel worse about the emotions or the circumstances I am experiencing. “God doesn’t give you more than you can handle,” someone might say. And my thought has been, “Well, it doesn’t seem like I can handle much more.” These phrases could be infuriating to a person. Well-meaning people (like myself) may leave the hurting person feeling misunderstood, more alone, or with unfulfilled needs. Instead, let these sentiments occur organically from within the person because otherwise they can truly miss the mark.
We are fortunate to be part of a solidly Faith-oriented institution; however it is important to be aware of the times that we may use over-simplified responses out of habit and a desire to stay distantly involved. Yes, the power of prayer is real and of utmost importance, but how often do we hide behind these responses so that no further actions or efforts are required of us?
Faith in action means meeting a person’s needs whether in a therapeutic environment, within our own families, or with friends. Next time, instead of giving advice, quoting scriptures, or reciting some other Christian rhetoric let’s ask the person what do you need most at this time? Is there anything I can do help? In this season of love and mercy, let us reach out, be present, and look for ways to serve one another more. Yes as Christians we pray, but let us ask ourselves what more can we do? If a person is hungry, we feed them; if a person is lonely, we can spend time with them; if they feel unappreciated, tell them what they mean to you—let’s identify the needs in others and try our best to provide the resources they need. But even if our abilities are limited, there is always something we can do–we can have an open heart, a listening ear and offer a helping hand.