The Dangers of Sympathy
September 06, 2012 Length: 12:35
Frederica explains that "worried prayer" can actually be hurtful to the suffering person
I want to recommend a journal that I enjoy a lot, called Road to Emmaus. It’s edited by nun Nectaria McLees, who is finishing her degree at Holy Cross Seminary in Brookline, Massachusetts this school year. And I wanted to talk about something in particular I read in the just past issue, the Summer 2012 issue.
There’s always a theme to each issue. The theme to this issue, I would say, is conception. It talks somewhat about contraception and talks rather a lot rather about in vitro fertilization and the moral issues to be considered there. But probably the miracle of conception is what is reflected over again and again in the course of this very interesting issue.
And the last article in the magazine in this particular issue is a transcription of a classroom discussion with Professor Timothy Patitsas at Holy Cross Seminary about in vitro fertilization and conception in general. And Professor Patitsas says, about people who are screening for fetal abnormalities so that they can abort the baby. It’s those people who would abort the babies. He says:
Motivation may be that people simply shouldn’t suffer. It is very difficult to see someone that you love suffer; much harder than suffering yourself. The suffering person always know what to do. They just suffer. When the suffering lessens, they forget it for a minute or two. But you, as the person who loves them, feel guilty if you even stop thinking of them for a moment.
It’s that couple of sentences that I want to talk about. He’s making a point though. I’ll go on. The next sentence that he was coming to was a conclusion that people screen for abnormalities to save themselves for suffering; the suffering that they would feel on behalf of an abnormal child. The child is obliterated and loses everything, but the person that is doing the screening has saved themselves a great deal of suffering. So that’s a very wise and true saying.
What arrested me in reading this was the truth of that sentence. “The suffering person always knows what to do. They just suffer.” I thought that that’s so true. That’s what it was like for me if I was sick or I was suffering in one way or another. I developed fibromyalgia, maybe fifteen years ago. And until I found medication that prevents me registering the pain, I really thought I was heading for disability.
And when occasionally there was a good day, as he says, “When the suffering lessens, then they forget it for a minute or two.” And it’d be wonderful to get my head above water and take a deep breath every once and a while when it lessens. But I know the other side of it too, which is when I had a friend who was really suffering terribly.
My husband went through a time when he was having a lot of really bad headaches, and I just would wring my hands over it and feel so terrible for him and worry about it and just think that he was so brave that he would just continue to go to church. He would do the Services. He would do the counseling. He would meet with people. Nobody knew that he was suffering like this. I just thought that he was such a hero.
And it didn’t really help him for me to say that. He would say, “Well, I just do it. I just do it.” I’ve been thinking about that lately; about how when I’m concerned for someone suffering, how unsatisfying I find my own prayers to be when they are what I call “hand-wringing prayers,” where I’m saying, “God, do something! Do something! This is terrible.”
I will go from thinking, “This is awful! This is terrible! How can this be?” to “Oh, I’d really like a cup of coffee. There’s a Dunkin’ Donuts. I’m going to go get a cup of coffee.” And then I feel guilty that I’ve forgotten about this terrible suffering my friend or my child is going through that doesn’t stop. They’re not able to take a break. That’s sort of a prayer. I once heard somebody say, “My favorite form of prayer is worry.”
And it’s that kind of worry that I just always felt like was not a very good kind of prayer. I didn’t know how else to pray for someone who is suffering. I didn’t know what other models there might be, but I would just turn to God and say, ” Do something!” and just be real tense about it. I wondered why that didn’t feel quite right.
What I began to realize as I thought about what Professor Timothy Patitsas says is thatI think it almost harmful or hurtful to the suffering person when you’re in the hand-wringing phase, saying “This is terrible! This is terrible! This is terrible!” All that communicates to them is, “This is terrible! This is terrible! This is terrible!” It kind of undermines their strength. When I used to teach natural childbirth classes, I would say to the husbands:
Your wife is going to be in a lot of pain, and you just have to man up and expect that, because if you say to her, “This is terrible! This is terrible!” she’ll believe you, and you will undermine her strength. She can do this. Both of you, in fact, are descended from a very ancient line, going back to Adam and Eve, of women who have given birth. So it is possible to do this. She can do it.
And of course, the painkillers are there if you want, but a lot of women just set themselves a challenge of “This is the ancient way, and I’m going to do it.” That’s what I did with three children, and I’m glad I did. It was so bad for the women when the men became “sympathetic,” and began reflecting back to them how hard it was. It was so debilitating to the women to hear that.
I think that’s sort of the same thing when we’re praying for friends who are suffering. Just explaining to them, over how terrible the situation is, doesn’t help them, because they have already made the adjustment and the suffering person knows what to do. “They just suffer.” They have already adjusted their expectations, and they have found a way to cope and to get through the day within the new normal and the new reality. And we would be coming to them with the old reality.
Compared to someone who is able-bodied and young and healthy, this is a catastrophe. But they’re not comparing themselves to that person anymore. They have made the adjustment to doing the best they can in the situation they have, and in that, there can be a lot of beauty with the things they still experience. There is a lot of life that can still give them joy once they’ve made that adjustment and accepted where they’re going to be and what they need to do.
So there are two things that I would want to say about that. One is that I heard on a teaching by Father Meletios Webber, the Abbot of St. John of San Francisco Monastery in Manton, California. And he quoted either Archbishop Anthony or Metropolitan Anthony. I think he meant Metropolitan Anthony Bloom, but I’m not positive what Anthony he was talking about. But the quote was, “The most dangerous thing that you can give to a person is sympathy, because you reward them for feeling bad.”
So that’s worth reflecting on, that that kind of sympathy can be debilitating, because it reinforces interpreting yourself as a person in pain and comparing yourself with the able-bodied, healthy person who doesn’t have these burdens to deal with. So that’s one of the thoughts.
The other is, well what do you do if you’re not going to sympathize. What’s the alternative to that? And I thought about the word comfort, which is of course the word in English for what we’re trying to do to help people; that the world literally means with strength. Cum is French for with and Forte is strength. To comfort is to strengthen someone. You remember in the Gospel story in Luke where it says that Jesus went into the Garden, and He withdrew from the other Apostles. He was praying; He was in agony.
This is the place where it says, “He prayed very fervently. His sweat became like drops of blood falling down upon the ground.” This is Luke 22. And it says, “An angel from Heaven appeared to Him, strengthening Him.” The angel didn’t come to just say, “Oh no! That’s too bad. This is terrible! How will you ever get through this day? You’re going to have to be crucified. Oh, I feel sorry for you.”
It wasn’t that. It was a strengthening. It was a, “You can do this. We are with you.” It was strengthening. That’s what those who suffer need. They need us to help believe in them and encourage them and strengthen them. That’s something I’m going to have to try and think about and try to figure out how to do it in my prayers.
Because for a long time, I really haven’t been satisfied with the way I do intercessory prayer, because I do tend to spend a lot of time telling God how terrible the situation is and just pandering. And it has always felt like this is an arrow that isn’t hitting the target, or as I sometimes say about prayer, “You’re knocking very hard on the wall, but there isn’t a door there. You need to move to where the door is to knock.” It just has felt like that never was a very good way of praying.
Instead, I have to think through what would it mean to pray a prayer where you were standing with the Holy Spirit, the Comforter; where you were standing with the angel that came to Jesus to strengthen Him, and you are praying a prayer that brings strength; that it truly is a prayer that brings comfort with strength and power; that is helping them what they need to do rather than, as Archbishop Anthony would say, “Undermining them with sympathy that rather rewards them for feeling bad?”
Well, I’ll have to think about this some more and try to figure out what that kind of intercessory prayer would look like and how you would do that, but it was some new thoughts for me, and I’m very grateful to Road to Emmaus Journal. You can find it online. You can get a subscription there and especially this Summer 2012 issue, where a comment by Professor Timothy Patitsas made me think about feelings that I hadn’t thought about before. The quote was, “The suffering person always know what to do. They just suffer.”
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