Stiff Upper Lip and All That

winter gardenA few days before Christmas I almost had a fall.  I didn’t actually go down, but in catching myself there was a huge shot of pain across my lower back, as if many adhesed muscles had suddenly been pulled free and torn.  It was excruciating for a few seconds, and the upshot of it has been intermittent pain and much difficulty in moving.  It is gradually getting better, but any time I need to stand from a sitting position, I feel I must guard those muscles carefully.  It is only during those periods of rising when I still feel any pain, but my body has generally stiffened up even more than it was before.  I already have a lot of arthritis, and my fear is that this is going to add to the general deterioration of my mobility.

Now, having said that, I already feel guilty.  Guilty for having spoken about myself (just not done, old girl).  Guilty for the appearance of complaining when so many others have it so much worse.  Guilty for the fact that I cannot say to those who have been praying , “Yes, it is much, much better, thank you, and I am back to normal”.  They want to know that their prayer has been effective.  Because they are kind, they really want me to be better.  I don’t know how else they can show their concern, but I get so tired of repeating the same story over and over to each one.  I begin to sound as if my injury is all that is on my mind ~ when in reality I wouldn’t bring it up at all if I wasn’t asked.  It bothers me.

The issue is: How do we handle any situation which doesn’t have a nice, happy ending?  How do we comfort those in distress?

In much of our culture we have adopted the British attitude of “stiff upper lip”.  We don’t want to admit that we are hurting, because we don’t want to be perceived as whiners.  We are overcomers, we tell ourselves.  Having been a part of British-derived culture all my life, I am well aware of the tendency to regard having succumbed to illness as a lack of moral fiber rather than as a physical reality.  I have also observed that this attitude is widespread among many evangelical Christians.  It makes life difficult for those who need comfort, and also for those who genuinely want to comfort.

When we pray for people, we invest something of ourselves in them.  We want to see good results.  I have observed that all is well when people get better, but sometimes when people don’t improve as fast as others think they should, a faint attitude of disapproval sets in.  It is as if people somehow think the person who is hurting is deliberately not getting better, and is just being stubborn about it.  Or, they begin to perceive him/her as a whiner, and just milking the good will of those around him/her.  If you are the one hurting, you begin to feel apologetic and shamed for not getting better and making people happy, or maybe resentful because for whatever reasons, God is not making it all better, and those around you are not being just.

Why should this kind of thing happen in Christian churches?  I believe it is because we don’t really understand compassion, empathy, and the art of comforting.

I know people are sincere when they want to see good results come out of unhappy circumstances.  It can be proof to us of God’s being able to bring good from every circumstance.  We are forgetting that bringing good doesn’t always involve making it all better.  There may be a deeper challenge to the spirit to learn to accept the will of God, even though it may involve pain and suffering.  I always remember the five martyrs in Ecuador.  Their wives and families had to cope with the realization that, from their perspective, it didn’t turn out to be all right.  They were somehow able to accept this as the will of God and continue to bless God.  They plunged back into the work in trust, and saw blessing.  Amy Carmichael wrote from a bed of pain.  It didn’t get better for her; instead she used her pain as the source of her greatest insights, and it is these insights which have encouraged and nurtured generations of women.  We need to be prepared to accept what looks like defeat in a spirit of trust and obedience, and continue to believe that God is love.  To the world this sounds ridiculous, but to those who have experienced the blessing that comes from laying the pain and suffering at the feet of the Savior and going forward in trust, it is great wisdom.

How do we comfort those in circumstances which might not get better?  I think it depends a lot on the people involved, but I remember an example from my own life.  I had a friend who was in end-stage cancer.  She was still able to be mobile and fully functioning most of the time.  When she was ill, she would hide away in her apartment, deliberately avoiding other human contact.  When she could be out and about, she was.  She and I would meet together occasionally for dinner.  She once said to me, “I really enjoy being with you, Barb ~ you treat me as if I am still “Judy” and not just “the pathetic cancer patient”.  She was tired of talking about her disease.  She was tired of having to look upbeat and cheerful even when she was fighting nausea and wanting to lie down.  Somehow, I allowed her to be herself in a loving atmosphere in which she could relax.  I can’t take any credit for this ~ it was strictly unconscious on my part ~ but I have never forgotten her words.

This carries over to the way we deal with those who are in mourning.  I hate funerals; I don’t mind being at the service (I always want to honor my friends), but I dread trying to exchange even a few words with the family.  I feel awkward and afraid I will say something which inadvertently hurts them, or will somehow make it worse for them.  I am afraid to be trite and speak in clichés for fear of being thought insensitive, yet what is there to say which hasn’t been said a million times at these rituals?  I have found that it is often better not to say much at all; just to give a hug, and move on.  I know that when people have wordlessly hugged me in times of stress, it has been a warming and comforting thing.  Is this enough?  I am not sure.

Early on in my life I learned from some wise people that the essence of good manners is to consider the comfort and sense of well-being of others as a higher priority than my own comfort.  I think this applies in dealing with all situations which are awkward.  I also think that as members of the family of God, we need to let people hurt when they are hurting, and feel free to tell the truth about situations rather than being expected to wear what I have come to call “the Cheerful Charlie face”.  We need to be able to be transparent with one another.  How else can we pray with intelligence?  How else can we pray with empathy?  How else can we truly be comforting friends and a genuine support to those around us who are in pain from whatever source?

In my ongoing journey of trying to learn to love as Jesus loved, I want to listen to hearts more than words.  I don’t want to impose rules on how other people are to respond to their circumstances.  I need to pray faithfully, but not assume my prayers will always be rewarded by improvement.  God may be working out some plan of His own in circumstances.  I want to be sensitive to the feelings of others in their need and more concerned about them than any preconceived notion on my part of how things should go… it isn’t about me, after all.

I guess it can be summed up by recognizing that in this life there will be sorrow.  We will all have problems and it is not up to us to try to dictate how others cope, or to have expectations that prayers will always be answered the way I prefer.  God is still sovereign, and He is Love.  I am to trust Him, and accept His will and to try to show others a reflection of His compassion and mercy.  If I allow people to be themselves in times of trouble, then perhaps they will allow me the same courtesy when I am the one in trouble.  The Lord reigns ~ and He is love.  “Beloved, if God so loved us, we also ought to love one another.” (I John 4: 11)

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