Thursday, July 15, 2010

Sharing struggles, bearing burdens

For as long as I can remember, people have felt compelled to spill their guts to me. Friends, coworkers, casual acquaintances, strangers on planes, in libraries, in grocery store lines... I have been asked for advice on dating, child-rearing, learning disabilities, nursing, daycare - pretty much anything related to relationships and family.

I don't know why that is. Maybe it's my maternal aspect. [snort] Maybe I just have one of those faces that invites talk. Maybe I look desperate for conversation. That might explain the strangers. They don't need to wonder if I'm trustworthy to hold their secret struggles. Most likely they're never going to see me again.

It could also be that I am often the oldest in any group I'm with. That has to do with my late-bloomer status. I finished college at 32. Got married at 39. Became a mother at 41. (I hope all this late-bloomer stuff means I'll live to be really, really old.) So perhaps other people just think I must have lots of knowledge and good advice. Ha! I know mothers 10 years younger than me, with kids 10 years older than mine, to whom I should be going for advice.

But getting back to "trustworthy:" I do try to be worthy of trust. I'd like to be a person others can talk to safely, without worrying that I'll judge them, or gossip about them.
Christians in particular like to talk about sharing our struggles and bearing each others' burdens. Women aspire to become a "Titus 2 woman" ready and able to listen and dispense godly advice to other women. Men like to have "accountability partners" to discuss their sin struggles with. It's a nice picture, that of having someone to hash over our problems with. Struggles with our children, our spouses, our mothers, our sins. (Of course all our struggles are about sin, one way or another. Ours or someone else's.) Most people would like someone they can really talk to.

But it's not that easy to find someone to talk to. It's not always safe to share problems and struggles. People are all too willing to listen; it's the responses that are the problem. I've already written about the problem of homeschooling moms who can't share their struggles with moms who don't homeschool. But it's not just those two groups.

Have you ever approached another mother about a problem with your child only to be told, first thing out of her mouth, that her child would never do that? And immediately you know it was a mistake to talk to her. It doesn't matter that her child never did whatever it was that you're asking about. What matters is that it was the first thing she said, and the way she said it. She wanted you to know that she never had that problem with her kid! Don't you dare think her child ever caused her that problem. Her parenting was so good and her child so perfect and well-trained that it is out of the question. That's not what she meant? Maybe not. Here's how to tell: listen for humility. There's a difference between "wow, I am not sure how to help you 'cause I've never dealt with that exact thing" and "well, I never had that problem with my kids!" You know which woman you will talk to again, and which woman you will steer clear of.

Or you tentatively ask a long-married lady if you can talk to her about your husband. Maybe it's a big problem, maybe small. She is eager to listen to you. After you bare your soul she tells you that you need to submit to your husband and not gossip about him. She probably has a Bible verse ready to back that up. But notice she says that after you have told her the problem. She wanted to hear it, all right. She enjoys hearing the problems. Later, in a prayer group, she will share your struggle with the others "in order for them to pray better." And you will never share with her again.

And you will wonder if there really is anyone you can talk to.

If you want to be a person others will talk to, share with, unburden themselves with, make yourself safe. Don't dispense advice; listen carefully, think, and respond in a kind and humble way. Don't pretend you have all the answers. Don't talk as though your kids, or your marriage, or your life, are perfect. It can help to relate an anecdote about a struggle of your own, even if it's not exactly related to the one presented to you. That will help the other person see that there aren't any perfect kids, perfect parents, or perfect marriages, and that she is not a failure. If it's important to you that people think your life is perfect, then keep your mouth shut and send your advice-seekers elsewhere.

Don't expect this sharing and unburdening to happen quickly. People have to get to know you. You have to be available and open to talk. You have to share your struggles a bit, too. Don't be someone who only listens! You don't have all the answers. You have something you'd like to share too, don't you? Come and tell me about it! Your struggles are safe with me.

1 comment:

Vee said...

I understand ...

I have a LOT of people come up and share with me. In public restrooms. At parks. At church. I think everyone is in search of being understood or to have someone listen and know that they matter.

My blog post today is about a friendship that went badly ... and I know, in retrospect, part of it was because the younger, more naive girl version of myself always put herself in the position of having an older "wiser" person dispense advice. But it took me years to realize that I was always being made to feel worse.

Now, I'm 38 and far more guarded in personal relationships. I wonder, sometimes, if that's bad, though. I feel that it's just getting harder to talk to people anymore about Real Stuff ...