To admit that you are in pain is to be vulnerable. It’s taking off the mask and revealing something about your true self—something that you can’t seem to control, because it’s beating you.
There’s a lot of talk about honesty, but when it comes to owning up to certain kinds of pain, vulnerability seems to invite judgment and shaming.
We tend to feel uncomfortable when someone expresses emotional pain. We want to answer the gnawing questions, fix the problem and stop the hurt.
If logical explanations are hard to find, we’ll try our darnedest to come up with one. We feel obligated to defend God’s name and character, and so we can give no room for the hurting person to question why.
If we can’t come up with answers, we might start wondering about our own unexplained pain. We tape the hurting person’s lips shut with a few good Bible verses and a glib response so we won’t have to listen to anything else that makes us uncomfortable. And we’ve defended God’s name to boot!
However, those glib, dismissive answers have shut the hurting person into dealing with his pain alone. Refusing to allow someone to grieve in your presence is one of the most selfish responses to vulnerability. Sure, it makes us squirm to hear someone question God like David sometimes did.
We tend to feel that only “nice” strong emotions should be acknowledged. But the fact remains, we are human, and we hurt and cry and often don’t have all of the answers. Sometimes we feel God is far away. We need someone to remind us of His nearness in a tangible, incarnational way—not through shaming and minimizing and preaching, but through the kind of listening that is not afraid of pain.
Every kind of hurting person needs a courageous listener, and any individual can choose to be one.
It takes a choice: I refuse to purchase my own comfort at the cost of shaming another as he shares his pain. Dispensing advice, attempting a diagnosis and minimizing the pain might make me feel wise, benevolent, controlled and spiritual, but I will choose discomfort while my friend shares her pain. I will not pretend that I understand (unless I truly do), but I will listen without shaming her. What wouldn’t we give for 15 minutes spent with a courageous listener? (Hint: That’s why counselors and psychologists can afford vacations!)
Sometimes, singleness is really hard. But there is a huge risk in admitting this out loud.
We singles try to put on a brave mask to protect this vulnerable part of us, but when we share a bit of the pain we feel and the questions we wrestle with, we are often met with an outpouring of shaming responses.
Sermonettes on contentment, zinging Bible verses, rote phrases like “when you stop looking, it will happen,” criticisms of “you’re too picky,” “you need to ______ more,” endless advice to “join this _____,” marriage horror stories, comparisons like “I wish I was free like you are,” “marriage is nothing like you think it is,” and outright judgments like “don’t say that!” “stop feeling that way!” remind us that we should only confide these feelings to our journals or our pillows.
I recently finished reading Sara Eckel’s delightful little book on prolonged singleness, titled It’s Not You: 27 (Wrong) Reasons You’re Single.
Her words opened my eyes to something I’d long felt but never consciously realized. Admitting that there is pain in singleness is verboten, in Christian and non-Christian circles alike.
We often hear that marriage is hard, but singleness? You’re probably discontent. You’re lonely? Please, let me educate you on how marriage stinks. You’re deluding yourself with little girl fancies. Or perhaps you’re crossing the line to becoming a desperate, mushy person. If I dare to admit that sometimes I struggle with feeling that God is unfair, a host of Bible verses will rain down on my head.
The message is clear: “Your admission of pain will bring you shame, and it will be minimized and dismissed.”
Recently, a single friend told me about a relative’s wedding she attended, where she was left standing alone at the back of the church throughout the ceremony. The sad thing was, my friend had asked her family to make sure she would not be left alone at the event, since weddings touch a very painful spot in her heart. Tears of hurt sprang to her eyes as she recounted the story. She had been vulnerable with this part of her life with those closest to her, and they had dismissed her pain.
What if we treated someone’s admission of pain as something very precious, something vulnerable entrusted to us? What if we would try to be a little less scared of pain we don’t understand? What if we chucked the shaming and the sermons and sent this message through courageous listening: “Your feelings matter. Even if I don’t have any answers, I’m here. You are not alone.”
I have one meaningful Valentine’s Day memory. It’s the day that I received a card in the mail from my two roommates who were sisters. They wrote to remind me that I was loved. In the midst of their own lives, these friends had remembered those few times in the past when I had opened up about the pain of being alone. They thought that I might be having an extra-hard time on that holiday, and they acknowledged my pain by reaching out. No sermonettes, no shaming, no demeaning pity. Just a thoughtful note on a hard day.
When it comes down to it, those are the responses that point us to God’s love. We don’t want more advice, and we certainly feel enough shame. We don’t need more Bible verses or comparisons that make us feel immature and ashamed for wanting what others have.
We just want to know we’ve been heard, and that we’re not alone.