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Ministering to Singles: Just Listen

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Around the end of 2001, beginning of 2002, I started having problems with my lower back. It got bad enough that I went to the doctor. He came into the room, asked me to describe the pain (shooting/stabbing pain across the left-side of my lower back and radiating through my left hip), and proceeded to tell me that I would always have back pain until I lost weight. He sent me home with some sample packs of arthritis medication and a photocopied sheet of stretching exercises I could do at home (I’d been going to the gym at work and walking at lunchtime with a coworker for months before this).

In May 2002, I got home from work on a Monday evening and my back was really hurting. So I pulled out the sheet of stretches and did the first one: lay on my back on the floor with my feet up on my desk chair (knees at a 90-degree angle). When I went to get up from this position a few minutes later, the pain was so excruciating, I couldn’t move. I was going to call 9-1-1, but I had to get up to be able to get to the phone. Sobbing from agony the likes of which I’d never experienced, I finally made it up from the floor into the desk chair. Though the pain subsided somewhat, I knew something was definitely wrong this time. This wasn’t just “my back aches because I’m fat.” So I went back to the doctor the next day.

The doctor spent hardly any time with me, but did order an X-ray this time. I could barely walk to the other end of the hallway to Imaging, and then it was all I could do to keep from screaming from the pain of lying on my stomach and side so they could get the images. When the doctor came back to see me after looking at the X-rays, he said that it looked like the space between the L-4 and L-5 vertebrae was compressed—but that was to be expected in someone as overweight as I was. He wrote me a prescription for a pain killer I couldn’t take (it was in my chart!) and ended up sending me home with more sample packs of arthritis medication.

I missed a week of work that time.

Between then and Christmas 2002, the pain never went fully away, and shortly before Thanksgiving it happened again—the agonizing, debilitating pain that kept me from being able to function enough to do anything. I went back to the doctor. He sighed (he may have even rolled his eyes) and said, “Well, I’ve said it before: you’re going to have back pain until you lose weight. But if you really believe it’s more than that, I guess I could refer you to an orthopedic specialist.”

Instead of punching him in the face—because it would have required getting off the exam table—I took the referral and left. Made an appointment with the orthopedist and went.

The ortho’s office had requested the X-rays from my GP’s office and had them up on the light board when I arrived for my appointment. He took a complete history. He had me stand up and show him how much I could move without pain (not much). And he did something my GP had never done: He ordered an MRI.

On January 3, 2003, I had that MRI (and plotted out the story of what would become my third completed manuscript—but that’s another story).

A week later, I went in for my follow-up appointment. The ortho came in and said, “It’s no wonder you’ve been in so much pain—you have a ruptured disc at L-4 and a bulging disc at L-5. Let’s discuss treatment options.”

After months of physical therapy and a couple of cortisone shots (straight into the spine—not fun!), we finally were down to the last option. I had surgery on August 5, 2003. Within a week, I was feeling so much better that I finally understood exactly how much pain I’d really been in and how debilitating it was.

The reason I’m sharing this story is not as an analogy but as an object lesson. The GP I’d been seeing had a major problem that hindered his ability to be able to correctly diagnose me: He could not put aside his judgmentalism (or prejudice) long enough to look beyond what was, to him, my only health problem—my weight. He couldn’t step outside of his own preconceived ideas to listen to what I was saying to him: I was in excruciating pain. Was my weight a contributing factor? Probably. Was it the root of the problem? No.

My experience with the orthopedic specialist was great. Not only did he listen to me and make objective observations about me without making hasty judgments or assumptions, once it was established that I was, indeed, in pain, he didn’t just send me home with some pills and exercises and the disparaging advice to “just lose weight and it’ll get better”; he educated me on my options for treatment and was there with me through all of it—offering advice/direction when asked, but letting me guide my own treatment. Oh, and I lost about 40 pounds on my own during the eight months before surgery.

When a single person says, “I’m lonely,” and a married person responds, “Yeah, well I’m lonely, too—and I have a husband and kids to take care of, as well,” it would have been like me going to the doctor in excruciating pain and having him look at me and say, “Yeah? Well my back hurts, too, and I just had a root canal, as well.”

It takes an awful lot for me to show any kind of pain or vulnerability. Teased unmercifully as a child in school, I learned to hide my emotions/feelings and suck it up when I was hurting (at least in public—it made me somewhat volatile at home upon occasion). As a single person, for me to actually admit in public that I don’t always like being single, that I feel agonizing loneliness (though those times have diminished as I’ve grown older and more comfortable with myself), and that I do long to find that life partner someday, I’m really putting myself out on a limb.

But just like I didn’t need that doctor to sit there and tell me that if I’d just lose weight, my back wouldn’t hurt anymore, I don’t need someone to try to “comfort” me during those hard emotional times with spiritual platitudes (“Maybe God made you this way”), rebuttals (“I have it just as bad as/worse than you do”), or advice that comes from a place of misunderstanding, prejudice, or judgment (akin to the “just lose weight” advice my doctor gave me).

When I get to the point that I’m hurting enough to show my vulnerability, all I want is for someone to listen. Someone to pat my hand or hug me. Someone to be with me. Someone to say, “I love you. Let’s figure out together how we can try to make you feel better.”

Older singles don’t need to be told that we should be thankful or content or feel blessed, or whatever, to be single. We don’t want to be constantly told how marriage is a struggle. Just like every other person on the planet, what we want is to feel like we’re living an abundant life, a life filled with meaning and purpose. A life focused on the blessing of today, not the uncertainty of the future.

Whether you’re married or unmarried, the best response you can ever have when someone comes to you in emotional and/or spiritual pain is to just listen. That’s all we want when we say, “I’m lonely.” Ask, “How can I help?” Give advice only if the person asks for it. You may have to ask questions to get the person to really talk about what’s bothering them, but your job when someone comes to you is to just listen—listen to the person and listen to God.

Several years ago, a friend of mine who was really struggling with some problems started talking about them one night after a singles event at her house (and I was not just her friend, I was her Sunday school teacher). She was hurting, deep down, and questioning why God would allow bad things to happen to her. There were so many things on the tip of my tongue that I wanted to say: Bible verses to quote about how God can turn bad situations into blessings, advice about how to look at other people who’ve gone through worse situations and managed to come through them okay, comparisons to bad things that have happened in my life and how I dealt with them. But I kept my mouth shut. I let her say everything she needed to say. And when she finally finished and I knew it was my turn to speak, the only thing that came out of my mouth was, “I don’t know.” And at that point, I knew I had failed her. I didn’t give her any of that wonderful advice. I didn’t quote any Bible verses to her. I didn’t give her any examples to look toward for inspiration. I didn’t even tell her I would pray for her.

The following Monday, our pastor called me at work. “What did you say to her?” he asked me. I explained the whole situation to him, and was in tears by the time I finished, apologizing to him for failing her. “You didn’t fail her,” he said. “She just left my office and was like a totally different person. I had to find out what you said to her, because all she told me is that what you said to her Saturday night was the best thing a Christian has ever said and it really helped her figure things out in her head.”

My friend didn’t need my advice. She didn’t need Bible verses quoted to her. She didn’t need examples thrown at her. She’d heard all of those things before, from everyone else she’d ever opened up to. She just needed a friend who would listen—and who would be vulnerable enough in return to admit that I didn’t understand why things happened the way they did either. By ignoring the urge to recite all of the “good Christian answers” I’ve heard all my life and admit to the fact that, deep down, I really didn’t understand why these things were happening to my friend, she finally started to realize that she wasn’t the only person who didn’t have all the answers. That there were other Christians who struggled and questioned why God lets bad things happen to us and doubted and got angry at God. That she was normal.

Those of us who are unmarried—and especially those of us who live alone—just want someone to listen to us occasionally. Someone to laugh and/or cry with when we don’t understand why our lives have turned out the way they have. We just want to feel normal. To be reassured that it’s okay to feel lonely, to long for what we don’t have (marriage and/or children), to know that it’s okay to be angry at God for seeming like He’s withholding His blessings from us when we look around us and see everyone else who’s been “blessed” with what we want most, to know that we’re loved just as we are. To not be looked at with a sigh and a roll of the eyes and have our pain written off as “it’s just in your head” or “if you had enough faith, you wouldn’t hurt like that” or be told “until you do XYZ, you’ll always have that pain.” If you must say something, say, “I hurt for you. And I’d love to listen to what you have to say.”

Don’t look at the unmarried people around you as “singles.” Look at them as brothers and sisters—as people. Don’t focus on their marital status and any preconceived ideas you may have about what it means to not be married and the stereotypes of what unmarried life is like. Just extend love by making the time to listen to us. That’s really all any of us are looking for, when it all comes down to it.

Listen. Extend love. And then reap the blessings that will gush forth.

18 Comments leave one →
  1. Sunday, September 27, 2009 5:37 pm

    Amen! 🙂

    The “just listen” philosophy works in any situation and is a wonderful way to sacrifice ourselves to someone else. Cause its a sacrifice sometimes not to say _something_…. LOL

    Like

    • Monday, September 28, 2009 12:07 pm

      It’s a huge sacrifice, especially for those of us whom God has gifted with and called into leadership. Being a leader, being a teacher, I always feel like the onus is on me to have the “right” answer—the right facts, the right scripture references, the right examples, the right analogies—whenever someone comes to me with a problem or a question. Saying “I don’t know” to someone was one of the hardest things I’d ever done. As I said, I beat myself up about it, because to me that was the “wrong” thing to say. But it proved a really good lesson for me, and one that I need to constantly remind myself of—that I don’t always have to have the answers. That sometimes it’s okay to just say, “I don’t know.” For me, it’s a sacrifice of pride. But that’s something that needs to be sacrificed anyway.

      Like

  2. Sunday, September 27, 2009 10:45 pm

    The lyrics “singing my life with his words” started going through my head as I read your blog. I can relate to so much of what you shared.

    Like

  3. Maureen L. permalink
    Monday, September 28, 2009 6:10 am

    Amen to that!

    Like

  4. Monday, September 28, 2009 8:06 am

    The best thing someone said to me after a miscarriage was “It’s not fair, is it?”
    Nothing soothed my ache the way that did. What I heard that day was, “I can’t help you, but you have every right to feel the way you do.” And to me, that WAS a big help, because everyone else tried to make it better by dismissing my pain. This brave soul told me it was ok to feel bad, and I will always love her for that.

    Kaye, I don’t know much about you. Just found you through the ACFW Historical thread. But I’m going to be watching you. You’re an inspiration to me today. Maybe someday I’ll be able to tell you why.

    (just realized how cryptic (and stalker-ish) that sounds! I’m just an Aussie with a writing dream and a big mountain to climb and I’m learning so much from ACFW sisters and brothers)

    God Bless
    Dorothy

    Like

    • Monday, September 28, 2009 12:14 pm

      No “stalker-ish” inferences made, Dorothy. And I’m so happy you shared your story. I was thinking of all of the other types of situations when this approach (“just listen”) works, but as I’ve never been through any of them, I would have been doing exactly what I was asking others not to do—using impersonal examples of how other people have experienced/worked through pain as a lesson instead of just sharing from my heart.

      I believe that part of the problem in Western culture is that we’ve moved away from being a people who can publicly mourn. It’s almost like there was a backlash to Queen Victoria’s very public decades-long mourning for Albert—where we went from the idea that you had to take at least six months to a year to mourn for a death to where we now expect people back at work in a week or two. We don’t want to know that someone else is mourning or in pain (back then, the person would have been expected to wear black, or gray with a black armband, for that period of mourning)—it makes us uncomfortable because we don’t know the “right thing to say.” When the truth is that we don’t have to say anything except, “I’ll listen if you want to talk.” But because of that out-of-sight, out-of-mind mentality we’re taught not to show our emotional pain, which is what I believe has gotten us to the point we’re at now when we all know how to put on a happy face to go to church and say, “I’m okay” when someone uses the phrase “How are you?” as a greeting.

      Like

  5. Monday, September 28, 2009 10:10 am

    One can never go wrong listening.

    Like

  6. Laura in Texas permalink
    Monday, September 28, 2009 10:51 am

    Thank you for this post, Kaye. It was VERY helpful. (Not just for how to respond to my unmarried friends, but for lots of other situations as well.)

    I’m going to print a copy and post it near my desk so I can keep it top of mind.

    Like

  7. Monday, September 28, 2009 5:48 pm

    This is one of your best posts ever. An incredible girl friend taught me the same thing this summer. She went through horrible heartbreak last year and no one responded to her properly – even me. I tried to encourage her, but I ended up spouting platitudes. With an amazing increase in empathy, she responded just right to me when I went through some painful things this year…she just listened and said the right things: “I’m sorry it hurts for you. I’m praying for you. Call me – I want to know how this works out.”

    Like

  8. womenofpromise permalink
    Monday, September 28, 2009 7:31 pm

    Excellent points.

    Like

  9. Monday, September 28, 2009 11:36 pm

    Sometimes the best way to show love is to listen…I love that Kaye!

    Like

  10. Thursday, May 20, 2010 3:58 pm

    Hi Again, (just found your blog from a friend…)

    A question for you…(Maybe you can point me to another blog where you address this)…but do you have any thoughts on the churches role to serve singles? There is this whole new demographic of never been married singles in the church today. Some of which want to be married and some of which don’t want to feel any pressure what-so-ever. How would you personally like to see the church address this or not address this…? (-:

    Thanks!

    Like

  11. BReeZy permalink
    Friday, October 29, 2010 2:28 am

    I need someone to really hear me. I have always been the listener and am not sure how to be the person on the other end now? I have carried a great sadness for a great long time and although I have had joyful moments in my life, someones bad behavior always seem to interrupt that joy rendering it short-lived! I don’t want to keep wasting time on things that don’t make me happy and am frustrated by the incivility that has surrounded me. I keep asking myself, how in the world am I going to get from here to where I hope to be? I’m a grateful person, finding it easy to show love and kindness, even to those who have been mean and hateful to me, but is it an age thing that we grow tired of putting up with garbage trucks in our lives or is it that we just become plain old tired? I wouldn’t say Iám in pain, but carry a deep hurt and want it to go away. I went to Jesus with it all and handed it over, like a little child I gave him my broken toys and walked away so as to give him a chance to repair me. It hasn’t happened yet. I think he is upset with me, because…? Please, if anyone here truly cares to offer something, anything to help soothe the hurt, I would be very appreciative. Don’t we all need someone to listen to hear us? Thank you to whonever can hear me!
    May God Bless You.
    BReeZy

    Like

    • Friday, October 29, 2010 1:04 pm

      Part of the problem with loneliness is when we rely on other people to give us happiness. One thing I’ve had to learn, the older I get and the longer I’m alone, is that if I base my happiness—my sense of wholeness, fulfillment, contentment, worth—on other people, I’m going to be miserable because people are always going to disappoint me.

      Being alone doesn’t have to mean being lonely or sad. Being alone means we have time to find out who it is God really wants us to be, to find true contentment in the gifts, talents, and blessings God has given us individually. To seek out the true purpose God has planned for our lives.

      Yes, when we’re older and single, it’s hard to find someone who will stop and listen to us. To find anyone who will think to stop during the week, call us, and check to make sure we’re okay or see if there’s anything we need to talk about. But sometimes, it is our own responsibility to make someone listen to us. To pick up the phone and call a friend, someone we’ve been there for repeatedly, and say, “I need to talk, do you have time to listen?” Be sure to explain that you’re not looking for advice or guidance, just that you need to know that someone’s there to listen to you when something is going on in your life. You may find that there are some people who aren’t willing to do this for you. Yes, that will be hurtful. But it will also be a way of discovering the people who are truly your friends and not just those who are using you as a sounding board. And through that, you’ll start deepening your relationships with those few true friends and you’ll begin to feel your burdens lightening and joy slipping back into your life.

      Like

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