Helpful or Harmful?

If you’re on Facebook, you’ve probably seen at least one of those “helpful” lists on “what not to say if…”. And believe me, there are SO many situations for which these lists are written! A few examples: What NOT to say to someone who is grieving. What NOT to say to someone who is depressed. What NOT to say to someone who is gay. What NOT to say to a mother of four or more children. What NOT to say to someone who is unable to conceive. What NOT to say to someone who has had an abortion. What NOT to say to someone struggling with a terminal illness. What NOT to say to a homeschooler…

And can I just say for a second, that as helpful as these lists can be for those who are trying to comfort or support, or maybe even help those in the situations above… these lists actually can cause more damage than good?

Some of you, who are naturally empathetic and who naturally want to protect those around you who are hurting, may have no idea what I mean. You may even have written one of these lists yourself or shared them on your news feed, trying to protect your loved ones who have been the brunt of some very rude comments. And hear me out, because I have actually been in a few of the situations above… and those lists, they NEVER helped me…they hurt me.

How? You may ask? How in the world can some compassionate advice HURT you?

Well for one, not everyone reads these lists and so it actually doesn’t stop the comments from coming. And now, the only difference is that I have read the lists, so when the hurtful comments do come (and they will), instead of brushing them off, realizing that well-meaning people can say some thoughtless things… I begin to feel a very real sense of being wronged.

For example: I’m at the grocery store with my five kids. People stare, I don’t really pay much attention to them. But a man I don’t know stops and says: “Are these all YOUR children?!?” And I smile proudly and nod at him, then he goes on to say, “Don’t you know how to use birth control?” (This comment also comes in the form of: Don’t you know when to stop?) To which I force a smile and, depending on the mood I’m in that morning either say a quick, “I love children, they’re such a blessing!!” or a gentle, “That’s not a very nice thing to say with my children present” or once in a while a sarcastic, “You know what? I’ve never thought of that!!! You’ve just saved me from having 20 more children!!!” And once the man has left, I shrug off the event, thinking that maybe he was just “simple” or maybe he had never been taught manners, or maybe he himself had a large family and was giving me advice he had wished someone else had given him! Whatever the case, I can move on, because he has really just made himself look bad and done nothing to harm me.

BUT…after I read the list of “what not to say to a mother of four or more children” suddenly I view the event very differently. Suddenly, I feel a very real sense of, ‘that man wronged me’, or ‘my friend needs to read this article’. And I begin to believe that those who do not understand me have actually wronged me.

This opens a HUGE door to offence! If I truly begin to believe that those who do not understand me are wronging me, think of the bitterness I will begin to feel toward those well-meaning people, who really don’t know any better! And think of how many situations I would be wronging people, just for not being able to understand them!

I don’t understand how it feels to be told that I have cancer, and to feel as if I’m staring death in the face.

I don’t understand the pain of a woman who has been trying for years to get pregnant and ends up with another negative pregnancy test!

I don’t understand the unimaginable pain and aching loss of burying a child or a spouse!

I don’t understand!! And as much as I try to empathize, to listen and to comfort, I will NEVER completely understand! Not unless I’ve gone through it myself. Just like there’s no human being out there who truly understands me, and all of the trials I’ve gone through! And if we are going to start holding grudges against our fellow brothers and sisters, just because they don’t understand us, then WE are a part of the problem.

People, this isn’t about that one person going through that one painful situation, but rather many people going through many different journeys. And we absolutely can work at becoming more compassionate, but even in my most well-meaning encounters, I run the risk of hurting those I don’t understand. Should we rather distance ourselves from those different from us? Should we rather avoid talking to strangers, lest we offend them? Should we avoid that friend who was just diagnosed with depression, because we have never dealt with depression and may hurt her?

No! I would far rather have people talk to me and say the wrong things, then to not talk to me at all! That is, if I keep in mind that they really mean well and do care for me.

So maybe that man at the grocery store has no idea how to relate to large families, but maybe he has stage four cancer and would be an excellent comfort to those facing that difficult road. Who am I to demand that he understand absolutely everyone? And if I am rude to him back and embarrass him for talking to a stranger, will I actually be holding him back from speaking to the next person who he may have actually brought comfort to? This is not to say we can never correct people, or to gently let them know that what they’ve said is hurtful. Not at all! I want to know if I’ve unknowingly said something to hurt you, so that I can learn to be a better comfort the next time.

But if you’re going through a trial, the best thing to do is to completely avoid any lists that enable you to be offended at the very people trying to help you. You don’t need to add bitterness or unforgiveness to the hardship you are facing!

Just forgive, gently correct those who say the wrong things and remember above all to realize that those lists, they aren’t for YOU, the one who’s hurting… they are for YOU, the one who’s helping.

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