A Gathering Voices post by Beth Pyles
Sooner or later, someone is going to tell you of a life experience that is beyond description in its horror and evil. Here are some suggestions for how to not screw it up.
1. Suck it up. Do not cry - not then, not while you’re in the room with them. This is their horror, not yours.
2. Do not run from the pain of others. If they could live through it and they can tell it, the least you can do is hear it.
3. Talk less, listen more. They need to tell and they need you to listen. They don’t necessarily need you to understand every detail. But they do need you to pay attention.
4. Do not underestimate the cost to you of the listening - it costs you something of your soul to learn firsthand about the reality and enormity of evil.
5. Share with a trusted confidant your own processing - your feelings and reactions. Think about how all this affects your own faith and worldview, but before doing any of the thinking work, simply feel your own feelings – after you’ve left the presence of the story teller. Own your revulsion, your rage, your horror, your grief.
6. Find your own way to forgiving the wrongdoer(s). Judging them and what they did is not the answer to your own reaction. You need to do the work you preach and forgive.
7. Avoid telling the one to whom it happened about their need to forgive. Maybe that’ll come later. But in the throes of relating a story of great suffering is not the time to speak of forgiveness unless the story teller brings it up. Chances are they won’t, except perhaps as a challenge. People telling about horrible things that have happened to them are often, if not always, reliving the experience in the telling. When you’re in the middle of the event is not the time to talk forgiveness.
8. Tell them you’re sorry it happened to them. Don’t cringe from naming the reality. The one who lived through it and is brave enough to tell already knows what it was. “I am so sorry you were raped.” “I hate that you were tortured in this way.”
9. Treat what they have told you as the strictest of confidences. Never allude to it in the company of others - not from the pulpit (even in general terms), not in a social setting, not even in the presence of those closest to them. It is their story, not yours.
10. Acknowledge that you don’t understand.
11. Never, never, never, say that you know how they feel. You don’t. Even if something very similar happened to you, you don’t know how they feel. You know how you feel. And sharing your own experiences when someone is sharing theirs is stealing center stage for yourself.
12. Maintain eye contact. It’s tempting to look anywhere but into the eyes of the suffering, but they need that contact from you. Give it to them.