I am an odd man. Whenever I hear of a terrible accident or of someone who had an unfortunate experience here or there I want to know precisely when and where it happened. Why? I want to know about these things because in my heart of hearts I think if I just had been there I could have prevented the accident or the unfortunate experience. It is irrational and silly to think this way, I know that. But nonetheless it is my reaction to each and every story of bad news. “I could have done something to prevent that”, I tell myself.
You could say it is the sign of a person who believes he can always do more to help, that would be the positive spin. Or you could say this person clearly has a high opinion of his ability to fix things and that would be the negative spin. The truth is I don’t think I have many abilities or even competent abilities, I am actually pretty useless when it comes to practical matters. But I do think my high-level anxiety could have prevented the mishap by verbally (loud) expressing concern about what is happening and causing the injured party to go another way, to do another thing, to make another plan, and thus no pain, no accident, no mishap.
Again this is ridiculous, and a very challenging way to live. Most people are not as deluded as I can be. But while this strain of guilt and responsibility for the world’s woes is perhaps unique to me it is only by degree. Many, many people I know feel responsible for things there is no way they could have made right. As a Minister I talk to countless people about the guilt they carry for untold number of things where it is clear there was nothing anyone could have made right.
The challenge as the listener in these conversations is to refrain from interrupting with, “Oh now, that’s just silly, shake yourself! There is no way you could have fixed that.” Shutting people down and telling them they have no right to feel a certain way is very bad listening and terrible pastoral care. But there does come a point, when the other has had the time and space to express how s/he really feels when you will be asked for your opinion. Then, and only then, may be useful to share that to your ears it does not sound like much could have been done to prevent this difficulty. Using “I” statements is always preferable to “YOU should…” People listen to us better when they feel we are speaking from our own experience, not waving a finger in judgement. The feeling is, “how can this person judge me when s/he has not walked in my shoes or know the whole back story.”
This Lent we will all be walking about carrying a high level of guilt for some things we have done wrong, more things we haven’t done at all and many things that are not ours to feel guilty about at all. Friends and colleagues and family members can help us to be liberated from the latter feelings. My prayer is that we will do that with care, love and good listening ears.