David Brooks, in a lovely column called The Art of Presence, introduces a family that has reflected at length on suffering and how to care for and bring comfort to those traumatized by tragedy.
Brooks highlights a few of the most important lessons for bringing grace and comfort to those who suffer:
- Be present. Don’t assume the traumatized need “space” to deal with pain.
- Don’t compare. Don’t ever say, “I know how you feel.”
- Small, silent gifts bring a world of relief and are never forgotten.
- Don’t ever interpret or try to make sense. Ever.
Christians often have a hard time with this final point. The temptation is to explain how this tragedy makes sense, or will make sense, in the big scheme of things.
We forget that Job’s friends were brilliant when they were silent and began to dishonor God the moment they began to interpret what was going on.
Brooks’s closing paragraphs:
Ashley also warned against those who would overinterpret, and try to make sense of the inexplicable. Even devout Christians, as the Woodiwisses are, should worry about taking theology beyond its limits. Theology is a grounding in ultimate hope, not a formula book to explain away each individual event.
I’d say that what these experiences call for is a sort of passive activism. We have a tendency, especially in an achievement-oriented culture, to want to solve problems and repair brokenness — to propose, plan, fix, interpret, explain and solve. But what seems to be needed here is the art of presence — to perform tasks without trying to control or alter the elemental situation. Allow nature to take its course. Grant the sufferers the dignity of their own process. Let them define meaning. Sit simply through moments of pain and uncomfortable darkness. Be practical, mundane, simple and direct.