One of my friends told me long ago that when he was recovering from major surgery and was blind and bedridden, another friend came to visit and couldn’t stop complaining about how itchy her mosquito bites were.
Another time, my friend Michelle Van Loon shared a remarkable list of insensitive things religious people said to a woman who had lost a child. High on the list? Moderately close acquaintances who can’t stop telling the bereaved parent how upset *they* are.
I could go on. How many times have you heard someone explain why don’t visit people who are hurt or sick or just plain old because it’s awkward, or I just hate to see him/her like that?
Look, I get that. But let’s not pretend it is anything other than selfish: because *I* don’t want to feel a certain way when I see that person, I will let them go un-visited.
(Why do I feel compelled to mention the separation of the sheep and the goats in Matthew 25?)
Here’s the thing about other people’s problems: they may remind you of your own problems and dredge up unpleasant memories, but they are not your problems (unless they are) and you shouldn’t go seeking sympathy. Your job is to offer empathy, help, or just simple presence.
There’s a great short piece in the Los Angeles Times this weekend that’s just brilliant at summing up how best to keep one’s mouth shut when others are in crisis. Here’s the heart of it:
Draw a circle. This is the center ring. In it, put the name of the person at the center of the current trauma. For Katie’s aneurysm, that’s Katie. Now draw a larger circle around the first one. In that ring put the name of the person next closest to the trauma. In the case of Katie’s aneurysm, that was Katie’s husband, Pat. Repeat the process as many times as you need to. In each larger ring put the next closest people. Parents and children before more distant relatives. Intimate friends in smaller rings, less intimate friends in larger ones. When you are done you have a Kvetching Order. One of Susan’s patients found it useful to tape it to her refrigerator.
Here are the rules. The person in the center ring can say anything she wants to anyone, anywhere. She can kvetch and complain and whine and moan and curse the heavens and say, “Life is unfair” and “Why me?” That’s the one payoff for being in the center ring.
Everyone else can say those things too, but only to people in larger rings.
In other words, as St. Paul wrote, rejoice with those who rejoice; mourn with those who mourn. Or, if you like, kvetch with those who kvetch. Just make sure that when you kvetch, you are kvetching alongside the person in the midst of the trauma — not intensifying the trauma by piling your own woes atop it.
There’s a reason why some traditions employ professional mourners, and nobody employs professional whiners. It’s a fine distinction, and one well worth considering.