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On Not Being a Therapist

Michael Gatlin

Michael Gatlin

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I’ll never forget the terror of sitting in Espresso Royale in Champaign, Illinois, listening to my friend tell me about the very real trauma of her youth. I was a sophomore in college and now considered a leader in my Christian fellowship. Years later, my friend laughed about how utterly disappointed she was that I, her spiritual leader, had profoundly nothing helpful to say at all.

Years later, I still struggle with what to do when people come to me with their problems. I’m eager to help, but like anyone, I don’t have any magic wand to wave over situations, and just because I have the title “pastor” doesn’t mean I got a secret codebook with what to say when people are hurting.

But, over the years, I’ve learned a few things about trying to help people when they are hurting. Here they are.

First, as the Hippocratic oath wisely suggests, do no harm. I think this is the essential message of the book of Job. Constantly err toward not saying anything. Constantly err toward just listening. Constantly resist giving advice. Constantly resist, above all, pat answers. It does not help suffering people to tell them that things will be better in heaven, or that God has a plan, or that things will work out, or that other people have it harder, or that we grow through suffering. Just be really quiet.

Second, you are not a therapist. Unless you are. There is a learned skill of processing people’s lives week after week, delving into their past, analyzing how they can change. It can be done well or poorly. But I think it’s important to recognize that therapy is something different from ordinary, everyday comfort. If we pretend that we are trained and skilled in ways that we aren’t, we are setting people up for disappointment.

Third, there are no simplistic answers. And, in some ways, I would even say this applies to point one above. Listening and not saying stupid things is job one, but you can’t just stay mute. At some point, you have to say something. And it’s hard. You’ll feel like it might be the wrong thing. And it very well might be. And even if it is the right thing, they might not receive it right. One way to be pretty sure you are saying the wrong thing is that it ties everything up nice and neat with a bow. Sympathy helps. It is not cliche to shake your head and simply affirm “This is so hard.” Affirmation can help. “You are doing a good job. I think you are handling this well.”

There is, I think, one time when it can be helpful to disagree with someone in pain. Sometimes, they themselves try to tie the thing up nice with a bow. I’ve often been talking to someone who is grieving, and suddenly they seem to cut themselves off and say something like, “But it could be worse. God has a plan.” Now, sometimes, this is just fine. At some point we do have to pull ourselves out of our grief. But sometimes, people need a little permission to be honest. Sometimes, at that point, I will interject. “Maybe it could be worse, but this is really hard. And God does have a plan, but it feels awfully confusing right now, doesn’t it?” It can be loving to give someone space to hurt.

One other quirky tip I’ve picked up is to pay attention to details. Things like money, food, and transportation. Do you have a ride to work? Is someone picking up the kids? Do you need a meal? Who is taking care of paying the bills? Is there a will? Will you need a lawyer? Even if you don’t have resources to help with these kinds of things, sometimes people in grief find they are confused enough that having someone help them think this stuff through is loving.

Have you learned anything along these lines? Made big mistakes? Has someone be especially helpful to you?

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