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Book Jacket

Trade Paperback
176 pages
Apr 2006
Baker Books

How Do I Help a Hurting Friend?

by Rod J. K. Wilson

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Please Understand Me

People have problems.

If you are a lay leader in a local church, sit on a church committee, attend a small group, form part of the youth leadership team, serve food in the kitchen, carry out any responsibility in the church, or simply hang around after the Sunday morning service, you have ample evidence to support this claim.

While this simple sentence has only three words, it reflects a complex reality in our broken world. We all struggle. We all do battle. We all have various things we have to face. Look around. Look within. People have problems.

What do people who are struggling with problems need? In our Western culture, where we have an answer for every question and a solution for every difficulty, we have a natural tendency to want to solve the problem immediately. When someone has a struggle with self-image, we want it to disappear. If a member of our small group comes from a dysfunctional family, we want them to get past it. The fellow deacon struggling with depression produces in us a desire for the quick fix.

When the quick fix does not come, this is the point at which most friends and family members struggle. Not only is the person experiencing the difficulty tired of their problem but others are growing weary of it as well. When is it going to go away? When is the problem going to stop? Isn’t there a solution out there somewhere? Can’t these things be cured? A lot of us move from being tired of the difficulty into growing tired of the person. They become a nuisance, an irritant, someone to be avoided rather than embraced. This powerful message is often picked up by the other person: if you are not going to get better, I am not going to be there for you.

The ripple effects of this sad scenario are many. Relationships become damaged and the person with the problem has their difficulties compounded by interpersonal strain. The person who has withdrawn experiences a degree of guilt and remorse but is not sure what to do about it. They know impatience with others is not an ideal way to live but they believe they do not have any other options. In many situations the person with the problem leaves the church only to have the same pattern redevelop in a new community. People in the new community are drawn in, but after a significant period of time trying to help the person out of their difficulty, they eventually feel helpless and pull back. I wonder sometimes whether church hopping, or as I like to call it, the circulation of the saints in evangelical churches, is more about people with problems not getting what they need than anything that is related to the church and its programs.

So what do people with problems need? Among many other things, they need to be understood.

The last five words in this simple sentence highlight a complex issue in human relationships. When presented with someone’s problems our natural tendency is not to understand. Most of us respond by evaluating, advising, or interpreting before even beginning to understand.

Take eight-year-old Michael. Born to a cocaine-addicted mother, he was sent from foster home to foster home for the first six years of his life. For the past two years he has been in a stable environment and his adoptive parents have done their best to nurture and care for him, although he continues to be shy and insecure. Periodically, Michael’s tendencies to explore come into tension with his parents’ strong desire to have a neat and clean house. His father, in particular, is a neat freak and highly values a spotless floor in the front foyer of their house. Dad, who also likes the house to be quiet, struggles with how loudly Michael speaks when he is excited.

On this particular occasion Michael comes running up the driveway with a large frog that he has caught in the pond down the street. His face is beaming, reflecting his satisfaction in capturing this delightful creature. Given his age, his excitement, and, most importantly, his background, he is not concerned at all with the fact that he had secured the frog from a very muddy side of the pond. The door opens, Michael screams in a high-pitched voice for Mom and Dad to come and see what he caught, and the mud dribbles all over the front foyer.

What is the parental dilemma in this scenario? Michael has self-image problems. He finds it easy to put himself down, to not value what he has done, and to experience a general worthlessness as he goes through life. In this moment he is in a different space. He is pleased with himself, proud of what he has done and wants to share it enthusiastically with people he cares about. The test for Mom and particularly for Dad is clear. They have two choices as they evaluate: If they want to understand Michael and listen to him in the fullest sense possible, they will recognize the priority of a child who feels significant and expresses his accomplishment with enthusiasm even though he has created a floor that needs to be cleaned. In contrast, they could evaluate the situation, put a priority on the importance of a clean floor, and create an environment where Michael feels devalued and is punished for being enthusiastic.

While evaluating is typical for many of us, the most natural response to the problems of others is advising. Arnold is a workaholic in the classic sense of the word. He leaves for work very early every morning, rarely gets home for supper, and spends a substantial portion of most weekends at his desk. Holidays are not part of his thinking, so while his wife and children will force him to get away now and again, he is in constant contact with work and seems to never be quite relaxed. Underneath his apparently successful exterior is an uptight, insecure person whose sense of identity is wrapped up in performance and behavior. In other words, he needs to be doing in order to feel that he is all right.

Friends of Arnold and his wife decide that what he needs is a proper vacation. The reason that he is so burned-out and fatigued is that he has not taken enough time off. They give him a gift of a long weekend away at a lakeside resort. “This will do you good,” they tell him. “It will help you slow down and make you feel better again. We have found ourselves recharged after going there for a long weekend.”

No one could question the sincerity of their intent, but in their desire to advise they have really not understood Arnold. A weekend away would be like a small bandage on a large open wound. Until he deals with the inner dynamics that are driving the workaholism, he will continue to experience the symptoms of burnout.