Saturday, September 3, 2011


I'm taking another stab at reading the book of Job.The last time I tried I was going through another one of my bouts of depression and my inability to focus led me to give up. I'm doing better now and my concentration has bounced back considerably. It's time to try again.

One of the things in this story that has always jumped out at me is the initial reaction of Job's three friends when they see him overwhelmed by his physical and emotional pain.

     When Job’s three friends, Eliphaz the Temanite, Bildad the Shuhite and Zophar the Naamathite, heard about all the troubles that had come upon him, they set out from their homes and met together by agreement to go and sympathize with him and comfort him.  When they saw him from a distance, they could hardly recognize him; they began to weep aloud, and they tore their robes and sprinkled dust on their heads. Then they sat on the ground with him for seven days and seven nights. No one said a word to him, because they saw how great his suffering was.   Job 2: 11-13

For seven days and seven nights no one said a word to Job, because they saw how great his suffering was. That is astounding to me - sitting with someone who is in pain for a whole week without saying a word. A week of silence! I can't imagine myself doing that. In fact, I think almost everyone would be challenged if they tried to sit with a hurting friend and be silent for a week.

We want to 'fix' things, make it better. (Note that it was when Job and his buddies started talking that they began  to get themselves into trouble. They kept digging a deeper and deeper hole until God intervened). We want to console and comfort our friend. We want them to feel better as soon as possible. We want to feel better by doing or saying something we assume is helpful. Some of us are really uncomfortable with grief and pain so we either avoid it or we blunder our way through communicating our compassion and sympathy to our friend.

Silence can be one of our biggest challenges. We are very uncomfortable with silence.

I'm sure most of us can recall being in a study or discussion group. The facilitator/leader raises a question to stimulate discussion. Then there is silence. What happens when there is no immediate response; when the room is filled with silence? What does the leader do? What do you do in that situation? Have you experienced the leader jumping in and answering their own question? Or maybe they ask more questions? Have you done that? I know I'm guilty of having done that. Responding to your own question either allows others to keep quiet or takes away their opportunity to participate in the discussion.

Silence makes us squirm.

And yet, keeping silent can be the best gift we can offer someone in pain.

I know that when I'm in pain I don't want people to ask me all sorts of questions about what I'm going through. Don't ask me to help you understand my pain. It's exhausting enough talking through things with my therapist or counselor. Don't ask me how I'm doing if you don't want to take the time to really listen. If you are willing to take the time to listen remember that I'm answering your question; I'm not asking for your help or advice. Just listen and keep silent.

When I'm in pain I don't want to hear trite comments, empty platitudes and annoying, meaningless cliches.

When I'm in the midst of my pain, quoting Romans 8:28 to me is not helpful or encouraging. Doing so is more likely to piss me off than comfort me.

Don't tell me that you're praying for me - if you want to pray, pray. Don't burden me with the pressure of being grateful for something I didn't ask for. Do you want affirmation from me? Praise?

I remember returning to church one Sunday morning after stay in the psych facility at St Boniface Hospital. This was my first time back at church (a community I was part of more than 15 years ago) since I had been discharged. Although I was out of hospital I was still not doing very well. The first person I met was one of the deacons who also happened to be leader of the small group I was part of. She greeted me with a huge smile, lightly touched my shoulder and said, "Glad you're back. We've been praying for you." I almost injured myself refraining from telling her what she could do with her prayers. You see, during my hospitalization and subsequent recovery time at home I heard from absolutely no one from that church community. Informimg me that they were praying for me when they didn't bother to call or visit was not encouraging or affirming. I found it annoying, irritating and presumptuous. I felt that it presumed that I would be appreciative and grateful and feel supported. Instead, I was p.o.'d to the point where I almost turned around and left. It would have been much better if this person would have just said, "It's good to see you" and then shut up! You can't get into trouble if you keep quiet.

Even fools are thought wise if they keep silent, 
and discerning if they hold their tongues.
Proverbs 17:27-28

If I request prayer don't tell me you'll pray if you're not going to follow through. If you're praying with me, for my needs, be specific. Only pray about the needs I have expressed. If there's other stuff you want to pray about, do it in your own space and time. I once had a pastor of a church ask me if he could pray for me. (We were talking on the phone). I agreed and he started. I don't remember what he prayed for; he went on and on, but at no time did he specifically mention my name or my struggles. After we ended the conversation I realized the prayer was more about him feeling good for doing something he thought was helpful for me, than it was about me and my needs. For me , it was only noise. I didn't bear any ill will towards this man, but I felt sorry for him. He didn't get it.

I remember a conversation with a friend who had an extended hospital stay. He mentioned how exhausting some visitors were. They talked on and on, frequently about themselves and their own little world. He wished people understood that it would have been far more helpful and comforting for him if visitors just sat in silence with him.

We don't have to fill every space with noise.

I used to have music blaring all the time, especially if I was driving. When I lived on my own, the first thing I did when I got home from work was turn on my TV and my stereo. Now I prefer quiet. If the radio is on when I start up the car, I turn it off. Quiet is peaceful. I like that.

Silence can be a very useful tool.

Years ago I worked in a number of sales positions. I distinctly remember being taught how to use silence in a sales training program. We were taught the skill of asking the right question to set up closing the deal. I can still hear the instructor say, "Ask the question, then shut up. The person who breaks the silence loses." The strategy worked more often then not. If I broke the silence I usually provided the customer the opportunity to say, "No thanks" and walk away. If I stayed quiet and waited for the customer to speak first, I usually made the sale.

I've used silence to get other people to take me off the hook on many occasions. I remember being in a group support/counseling session where the facilitator was making a valiant effort to manipulate me into taking ownership of a problem. I stayed quiet. So did the facilitator. The silence was too much for another person in the group and they piped up. Now they were in the spotlight and I was free and clear - at least for that time.

Silence can be difficult. It seems so empty. We get tempted to fill the  emptiness even if we only have junk to fill it with.

Silence can be healing. Peaceful. Having someone sit with me in silence is comforting. I find it pleasantly peaceful when Heidi and I sit in the living room, each of us reading in silence. Sharing silence with someone you love can be fulfilling.

It's raining today so I'm not going for a ride on my bike. The air conditioner is off. So is the fan. It's quiet. I'm just going to sit and enjoy the silence for a while.

1 comment:

  1. Horst. I understand your feelings about silence. My best times were at my little house in St. James, when I would come home after a long day of noise, chatter, and frenetic energy to complete quiet. A friend asked me once if I wasn't lonely without a stereo and tv to provide background noise. My response was, "I may be alone, but I am not lonely." Silence is a good companion. Listen for it.