This is part two of a series about barriers to communication, those things we say or do that shut down and distance others; that quench open expression and potentially grieve relationships. I confess that giving advice and making premature suggestions is one of my besetting sins. So this week’s story is up close and personal.
Several years ago my father-in-law, at the age of sixty-one, suffered his first of five strokes. My wife, Susie, was an only child and her father and mother depended heavily upon her, as did our three daughters, ages one, three and nine. At age thirty-six we were catapulted into the “sandwich generation”, those people who are “sandwiched” between simultaneously caring for minor children and aging parents.
Members of the “sandwich generation’ must allocate their limited resources, time, energy and money. Like the circus performer who tries to keep ten plates spinning on the end of poles at the same time, they usually end up dropping a few. They often feel pulled in a thousand different directions and are at risk for emotional and relationship problems simply because they are “spread too thin”. And patience is one of the things that can wear thin, as the incident below illustrates.
We were several years into our thirteen years of care giving, when, on that day that will “forever live in infamy”, I came home to find Susie sitting at the kitchen table with her forehead resting in the palms of her hands. I asked, “What’s wrong?” and she replied, “I’ve been down at mom and dads.” As she was unloading her frustration, you guessed it, I gave her my unsolicited advice, “Do you know what you need to do. You just need to tell your mom that…” Uncharacteristically, and without hesitation, Susie immediately fired back, “Did I ask you for your advice? Did I ask you to solve my problems? I was hoping that just this once you would just put your arms around me and hold me, that you would just understand.” How could I respond other than to say, “I’m sorry”. And I’ve been sorry for doing that ever since. I stood corrected that day.
The bottom line is that when most people confide in us they don’t expect or even want our advice; they just want to be understood. Paul Tournier, noted Swiss physician and counselor wrote: “When I question the person who has just told me something he has never dared to admit to anyone else, he replies: ‘I was afraid of not being understood’… The feeling that he is understood is what helps him to live, to face any problem, however difficult, without being false to himself. It is a moment of truth, of confidence, of deep emotion, for him- but also for me.” (“The Listening Ear”)
I’m reminded of Terry, a successful business man and former hospice patient. During my very first social work visit Terry told me, “I always made plans. The way I look at it, if a man doesn’t know where he’s going, he’ll find himself walking sideways. And I don’t want to walk sideways.” I thought, “What do I have to offer this guy? I need to learn a few things from him.” So I was surprised by his opening statement during our next visit. Terry asked, “Can I ask you a question? Where does a man find inspiration?” I replied, “Man, that’s a good question. Let’s talk about it.” We engaged in a dialogue, a mutual exchange of experiences and ideas. What freedom I experienced that day when I realized that I didn’t have to have all the answers; that we were fellow pilgrims, both needing the answers to life’s questions. Our dialogue became an exciting joint adventure, a joint exploration and discovery; a true personal encounter from which neither of us would ever be the same. I stood corrected again that day and I’m still standing in need of correction. I accept that I’ll never perfectly learn my lesson but I’m sure shooting for improvement.
In closing, I want to clarify that there are times when advice is warranted, but maybe we should liken advice to a powerful narcotic, a “controlled substance”, that should never be dispensed off the cuff or over the counter, but only sparingly with a written prescription after a thorough evaluation for a clearly defined purpose.
The purpose in a man’s heart is like deep water, but a man of understanding will draw it out. (Proverbs 20:5; English Standard Version)
I hope you return next week for part three in this series, titled, “I feel invisible”.