Many years ago, when I was seriously sick, concerned friends dropped by with a smorgasbord of healing suggestions.
Several recommended I shun carbohydrates. Others suggested acupuncture, high colonics and goldenseal. My night table got piled high with self-help books, inspirational CDs, Brazilian healer brochures, crystals, affirmation cards and even Russian Orthodox icons. Friends offered optimism, too. Marie confidently predicted I’d look back at this in a year and laugh. Harold told me his uncle had had this same disorder and outlived his doctor.
And you know what? None of this helped me feel better.
My spirits did rise, though, when friends genuinely asked how I was doing and stayed to hear the full answer. Sometimes the answer was that I didn’t feel like talking then, but other times I told my story, and as I retold it while listening to myself, meanings came to me which not only diminished my suffering, but helped me comprehend my life in unprecedented depth.
I’m not down on the good people who offered diets and crystals. We all feel terrible seeing a loved one suffer, and want to offer them whatever balm we can. I’ve done my share of that, and thought afterwards, “…at least I’ve done something.”
That something, though, actually amounted to treating my own anguish about their discomfort. In the Old Testament’s Book of Job, Job’s friends offered him similar advice, like, “Job, you need to sacrifice a goat.” I suspect they realized even as they spoke that their attempts were predictably futile.
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When we hear someone’s suffering, truly hear it, it hurts us. It hurts to the point that we want to say, “Enough already!” But that would sound uncaring. So instead we say, “Take these vitamins,” or “Here’s a list of clinical trials,” or, “I just know things will turn out alright.” These comments treat our own pain but effectively halt the sick person’s narrative. We’re off the hook, leaving them still on it.
So the next time you’re tempted to fix someone who’s sick, try instead to tell them nothing at all. Just listen…and let me know what happens.
Jeff Kane is a physician and writer in Nevada City.