Today I am going to risk the possibility of stepping on a few toes. I do not intend to offend, and I will try to write with compassion and understanding, but this is a topic that I have thought about (and even struggled with) for years and I think it’s important.
It is about how we response to the sorrows and joys, the tears and laughter of others. I think that often we get our responses mixed up and end up hurting more than helping. That’s understandable because it’s not easy to know what to do. However, we can try to learn, even if we are awkward at it.
I will address the first one briefly and the second one in more detail.
Sorrow and Tears
I think that when people we love are in dark places of sorrow and tears, it makes us feel uncomfortable because we don’t know what to do and say, and we care and want to help, so we try to fix their problems or cheer them up and we end up not helping at all.
Most people were awesome when JJ had cancer. However, a couple people told me not to be afraid, and never to let JJ see me cry, and to have faith. I think fear and tears are a normal–and healthy–response when something traumatic happens and our lives are turned upside down, especially at first. It takes a bit to recover our breath and continue on when the news is bad. It is not indicative of a lack of faith. When JJ was a child and his beloved cat or hamster died, he would say to me, “I feel really sad.” I never told him not to be sad. I always said, “Losing your pet is a very sad thing. It’s normal to feel sad. So go ahead and be sad.” And he would be sad for a bit and grieve the lost of his pet, and then after a while he would be ok.
I had a lot of awesome friends who encouraged me when JJ had cancer, but the most awesomeness was a friend who never told me what to feel. When I cried, she was there–and cried with me. She was almost as anxious about the results of JJ medical treatments and tests as EJ and I were. When I could find humor in a situation, she did too and we laughed together. I have told her how much I appreciated this and she said, “You would do the same for me.” I said, “Well, I would try….” because I think she has a special gift of being there and knowing what to do that I haven’t yet learned. She might not realize it, but she is my example of how to help others through suffering, and I am trying to learn to be more like her in this.
A video that I think is very helpful is this one about the difference between empathy and sympathy and how to help those who suffer. Don’t worry, it’s short and rather cute.
Joys and Laughter
There are a lot of articles about how to help someone who is suffering. However, I think most of us don’t consider how important our response is when another person is experiencing joy and laughter. I think our response to others’ joys is almost as important as our response to others’ suffering.
I want to start out by saying that one of the things I have observed about my childhood is how little each of us kids were celebrated. We heard other siblings or people being praised or celebrated, but not often ourselves. The result of this is that envy took root and grew: We thirsted for what others were receiving that we weren’t and our envy often made it difficult for us to be happy for others.
This included me. However, over the years, little by little, God has taught me important lessons about envy, and entering into the joy of others, and the effect it has on others when we don’t, and I think these things are very important so I wanted to share them. They aren’t in any particular chronological order.
1. I once was envious of a friend who was constantly praised by another friend (I think the second friend was actually trying to cause envy–it’s called triangulation–but that’s another story). Then we got to talking and I found out that she was envious of me, which completely surprised me. We laughed about her envying me and me envying her, but I really pondered that while we are envying the lives of others, they might be envying our lives. It taught me to stop being envious of others and to appreciate my own life more.
2. I once found myself envious of a friend who rapidly advanced in a company in which she made more than $100,000 annually while we were struggling financially. I thought, “Why do other people have so much when we always have to struggle!” Then I remembered that my friend had had a lot of suffering in her life. She had once told me that at one time she had been so poor she couldn’t even afford to buy the basics…like toilet paper. I have never been that poor. Was I really begrudging her a time of blessing and plenty when she had suffered so much abuse and poverty??
This taught me that we all go through seasons of scarcity and plenty in our lives. We don’t always know every chapter in the lives of others. The abundance that they are now enjoying might have been preceded by a time of great suffering and poverty–or it might be strengthening them for suffering soon to come. So I began to work to cultivate a spirit of genuine gladness whenever a person was experiencing goodness in their lives.
3. I used to work with a woman who knew how to “rejoice with those who rejoice” in a way that I had never seen before or since. She was genuinely happy for others and asked them questions that allowed them to express their happiness. For example, I remember one co-worker was planning a vacation to Hawaii. The woman asked “When are you leaving? How long will you be gone? Where are you staying? What sights do you plan to see?” There were no comments like “Things like that never happen to me” or “I wish I could go to Hawaii” or “Man, why can’t I have something like that happen to me?” She was excited about everything they planned to do. She never said anything that diminished their joy. In fact, this woman caused the joy of others to increase. I decided that I would try to be more like her.
4. I wrote a few paragraphs earlier that my siblings and I were not celebrated so we became envious of others. I have one sister, in particular, who was very jealous of me because she felt that I had always been more loved then she was. (There is a dynamic in Narcissistic abuse in which there are favored and unfavored children. In reality none is truly loved and all suffer damage.) I am quite sure she was also jealous of everyone’s good fortune. It didn’t matter how big or little the good thing was, her envy sucked the joy out of every happiness. She often said things to me like, “Nothing good ever happens to me…You always have been God’s favorite. He gives you all sorts of good things and gives me nothing.”
Several years ago EJ and I realized that we were forgetting how to have fun or laugh. For many years EJ worked 12-16 hour shifts–or more–seven days a week for months without a day off. His company was awful, often firing people without warning for the smallest offences. After EJ left the company last March, a co-worker was seriously hurt, but the company refused to allow an ambulance to be called, instead ordering another employee to drive the injured man to the hospital. (After this incident, the company was investigated by OSHA.) EJ told me that often when someone was injured at work and in the hospital, barely coherent from medication, someone from the company would bring papers for him/her to sign saying that they would accept a bit of money and not sue the company. EJ was an encourager at work, lifting the spirits of his co-workers–especially after one of his work friends committed suicide. When EJ left for his new job, his leaving triggered an exodus. Many, many employees quit every month. He asked one former co-worker how many had left, and the co-worker said that all he knew is that in one month, about 30 employees walked off the job. That’s just ONE month.
Anyway, back to my story. Several years ago, EJ was so exhausted from working so much without a break in a difficult job that he almost had a breakdown. So we bought a used RV and we went to a beautiful campground (in Northern Michigan!) so he could rest. JJ and I also needed the break because with EJ working so much, we didn’t get a chance to do many fun things. We did little things, but sometimes we only had one vehicle so we couldn’t get away. When I happily told my sister that we had bought a used RV and were going camping, rather than be glad that we could enjoy some much-needed time away, she again diminished my joy with her envy. “WE never go on vacations,” she said resentfully, as if there was something wrong with our having something good in our lives. For goodness’ sakes, did she resent our rare vacation when they had their own private vacation spot to enjoy every day? Her mother-in-law had sold her son–my sister’s husband–the wonderful 40-acre farm he had grown up on at a very reduced price. It had fields and forests and a beautiful little pond on it. They had a picnic area near the pond and a wonderful little paddle-boat. My sister was like a miserable old miser who disregarded the piles of gold she had and resented anyone having any coin that she didn’t. I certainly didn’t want to become like my sister.
I had never prayed for God to deliver us from trouble but instead I’ve always prayed for Him to give us strength and faith and growth through suffering. However, I knew how weary we were becoming. JJ’s battle with cancer was sort of the final straw that totally broke our remaining strength. Afterwards, we were absolutely emotionally and physically exhausted. Even then, we would have tried to persevere, but when I saw how EJ’s company was destroying his health, I finally said, “I can bear no more.” I begged God to move us to a new area with a fresh start, crying that I didn’t know how much more I could endure. And immediately, things started to happen.
I don’t know at what point to include a little about the damaging effects of emotional abuse. Other bloggers are able to articulate it better, I think. But I can say that trauma victims–of every sort–often struggle with feelings of hopelessness, guilt, sadness, depression, anxiety, indecision, and self-hatred, with their identity, and with PTSD symptoms. Cancer survivors and their caretakers can also suffer from many of these things as well, and caretakers suffer from the exhaustion of burnout. I told EJ a few days ago that I feel as if I am filled up and overflowing with tears and sadness and weariness from years of struggle and heartache and abuse.
Up here, in the North, away from my emotionally abusive family, away from EJ’s abusive company, away from the difficulties JJ has struggled with, away from many, many struggles, we have an opportunity to breath, to heal, to recover, to restore our emotional, physical and spiritual strength. But it takes time. I’ve read that emotional abuse takes a very, very long time to recover from because it causes so much damage.
I have not described these things in order to elicit sympathy, I have a point to make. I want you to understand that our lives have not been one wonderful, happy, frivolous thing after another with nary a sorrow. I’ve told EJ several times that there is no way we could ever describe to anyone the difficulties and heartache we have endured. He agrees. I only mention comments here or there in posts now and then but it would take a thick book to describe the things we have experienced–and even then I couldn’t really describe it.
EJ and I have always, all our lives, trusted God, and counted our blessings, and found pleasure in small common things, which we actually think are wondrous and miraculous–like geese flying overhead, or intricate spiderwebs, or stars in the sky, or glittering snow, or the glimpse of a deer. It comes naturally to us, usually.
And, yet, finding pleasure and wonder in small things are not just little pleasant, trivial experiences. They are powerful weapons. Abuse and PTSD sites teach about the importance of learning to live in “mindfulness.” Mindfulness, as I understand it, is about not letting thoughts get lost in memories of trauma, or in sadness, or in anxiety about the future, but to learn to focus on Now–by counting blessings, enjoying the beauty around us, having fun and laughing. These things are lights that drive out the darkness. I told EJ that each time I count my blessings, each time I look out at my beautiful surroundings, each time I see wildlife on our property, each time I see beautiful birds at the feeders, each time I sled down the hill and laugh all the way, each time I see how happy EJ is, each time I see how JJ is thriving, each time Danny looks up at me and grins or the cats cuddle with me, it’s like a drop of sadness trickles away leaving another space for joy.
There are evil people who enjoy causing pain to others. There are envious people who resent the joy of others. And there are ignorant people who don’t understand how their comments can weaken others. (“Ignorant” is not intended as an insult–I mean they really are unaware.) Fighting for recovery (from abuse, illness, depression, or whatever) is a battle. The Bible says that “the joy of the Lord is our strength.” If you dim the joy of others, you weaken the strength they need to fight very difficult battles. Diminishing joy comments make me feel as if I have been punched in the stomach. They make my grasp on joy slip and make it harder to fight the sadness of trauma. It’s almost as if I then have to keep telling myself that it’s ok to enjoy blessings and feel joy and to laugh.
Diminishing joy comments can include statements like “Good things never happen to me….” “WE never get to do that…” or even “I’m glad you are experiencing blessings but there are many people who don’t have such blessings.” I don’t even know what that last statement is intended to convey. Is it meant to make a person feel guilty for having blessings? Are we supposed to not be happy because somewhere someone is sad? Does it express the belief that in being happy, we are ignoring all those who are suffering?
Believe me, I am very aware of the suffering of others and I don’t need reminders that it exists. As a very empathetic person, I deeply feel the suffering of EJ, JJ, my friends, or of those I hear about around the world and it breaks my heart. Often the suffering of others is more difficult for me to bear than my own suffering. Because of all this suffering in the world, sometimes I have to step back from it or it will overwhelm me with sadness. I–we–NEED to have moments when we can set aside the sorrow and be glad. I like what a Jewish sage wrote. I can’t remember his name or the exact comment but he said that we sin if we see only the pain and sorrow in the world and can’t see the beauty and joy in it. Our ability to count our blessings does not mean that we are ignoring others’ suffering. Despite suffering, 1 Timothy 6:17 says that God has given us “richly all things to enjoy” He surely knows about the suffering in the world–on a deeper level than any of us–and yet He still commands us to have joy and to enjoy His gifts.
I love what two of my friends wrote at FB after I shared my post in which I counted my joys: “I love that you’re all so happy and content!” and “What a blessing for you all and a joy to hear about!” There were no statements that diminished joy. (In mentioning Diminishing joy comments, I’m not including “pretend” envy. I have a friend who sometimes said, “Oh, I am so jealous you got to see the woodpecker…” or whatever. I don’t think of it as real envy. It’s sort of just another way of saying “That is so cool!” and “I would love to see it too!”)
Another thought: It seems to me that the people groups who have experienced the most sorrow in their history have the most joyful music. I wonder if it’s because they will not survive the sorrow if they can’t ever experience joy. The more sorrow there is, the more joy is needed to fight it? Joy helps us get through the difficult times. It’s why we have to count blessings. We will drown in sadness if we can’t ever release it.
We all have times of joy and sorrow, laughter and tears. They come and go like the seasons. We need to have periods when we can let the burdens of sorrow drop from us and soak in beauty, laugh, dance, sing, and be silly. Times of joy are like benches to rest on along an arduous trail before we continue on. Although we need to be careful to be empathetic, and we must be able to “weep with those who weep” we are also told to “rejoice with those who rejoice.” Some of the ancient Jewish sages taught that “true kindness consists in doing whatever the person with whom you are interacting most needs; thus a depressed person focused only on that which is paining him might desperately need to laugh, and thereby recall that life is not just anguish.” (Read more about the value of laughter at my other blog, I Love To Go A-Wondering.)
God has given EJ, JJ, and me a chance to rest and recover here in our Enchanted Forest. I am thankful that we have this time in which we can relearn how to enjoy life and to laugh again. Counting our blessings and enjoying our new life is a way of recognizing that a loving God gives rest to His people and has brought us to a place of plenty after a time of suffering.
For you, God, have tested us,
refined us as silver is refined.
You brought us into the net
and bound our bodies fast.
You made men ride over our heads;
we went through fire and water.
But you brought us out
to a place of plenty. (Ps. 66:10-12)
So, in case my intended message has gotten lost in this long post, I want to sum up:
FYI: I disabled comments for this post because it was difficult to write and I don’t want debate. If you believe that the things I’ve written does not apply to your life, then it doesn’t apply. Let it go. If it does apply then be aware of how your comments are affecting those around you and ponder how you are going to start being a person who increases the joy of others rather than decreasing it.