Chicken soup of sympathy

Bringing a spiritual perspective to daily life

Maybe it's because I'm from a large family. As a child, one way of getting individual attention was to be sick. When I was sick, I got to be alone with Mom, and sometimes she would go out and buy me a soft drink to go with my soup. Tea and sympathy, you might call it. I have fond memories of snuggle times with my mom during those days when I didn't feel well.

As an adult, I looked for ways to feel loved whenever I had problems. Any kind of problem, like feeling misunderstood at my job, or upset by another person, or ill. A heartfelt "There, there, how very awful for you" was like chicken soup to me. Of course, compassion and comfort can certainly be expressed in kind, encouraging words. But I learned that mere sympathy isn't enough to make you all better.

My job duties once included running a series of workshops on dealing with burnout for hot-line workers, police officers, and social workers. One day, I had a workshop with a group of probation officers whose job was to meet with people who'd been sentenced for a crime. Each month, every officer met with and kept track of about 80 people. The officers were asked by the court to recommend whether the individuals should be in jail or be freed. Making these decisions based on brief meetings, which was all the officers had time for, was very stressful. If they recommended someone be freed who then was released and committed another crime, they felt personally responsible.

At the end of the first day, I felt burnt out! Could I provide any tools that were meaningful and lasting in this demanding environment? Mere words of sympathy, no matter how sincere and heartfelt, wouldn't be enough.

About this time, I had begun a study of the Bible and Jesus' healing ministry. I didn't read about any instances when he commiserated with someone in need of healing. Not one "There, there" or the Biblical equivalent. Instead, he gave them what they most needed: healing. He didn't just speak kind words and then walk on.

Before the next session, I prayed for guidance to tell them what would be loving and effective. At first, I was so appalled by their workload and responsibility that I didn't think I was capable of helping them. Then I realized that if I really couldn't help them, that would be OK, because God, not I, was in charge of each one of them. My job was to point them in a direction with a solution that would be more meaningful than a sympathetic ear could offer. The burden of personal responsibility to fix something or someone fell away from me. I knew that it could fall away from these officers, also. I wasn't sure what I would say or do, but I was no longer afraid I had no solution.

I began the session by confronting the issue of personal responsibility. I asked each person to take that burden out of his or her "in box" and put it in the control of a higher, spiritual source. Without imposing or intruding on anyone's beliefs, we explored ways to rely on God to govern and guide our actions, our ability to make decisions, and our need to feel loved and appreciated. The overall feedback after our meeting indicated that they felt a release of discouragement and job pressure.

Experiences like this one short-circuited my method of feeling better through sympathetic words or actions. "What is it you are looking for?" I would ask myself when I had a problem. "Do you want someone to feel sorry for you?" No. I wanted someone to be loving enough to be compassionate, as Jesus was, but to help me see past the difficulty to a solution. Love and compassion were qualities that Jesus expressed on a practical level. Not only did he inspire the multitudes, but on at least one occasion he even made certain they all had enough to eat by multiplying a few loaves and fishes. To me, his ministry included nurturing and mothering.

Mary Baker Eddy, the founder of this newspaper, wrote, "The poor suffering heart needs its rightful nutriment, such as peace, patience in tribulation, and a priceless sense of the dear Father's loving-kindness" ("Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures," pgs. 365-366). I stopped looking for "There, there" and turned to God for healing. And I found that to be the best possible snuggle-time of feeling loved.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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