A couple of months back I was at a conference for church family workers and volunteers, attending a seminar about Perinatal Mental Health. During the seminar, the speaker showed this video by Brenee Brown, explaining the difference between Sympathy and Empathy. In it, a little fox is alone in a dark hole. An empathetic bear climbs down into the hole, connects and sits beside them. A sympathetic gazelle, on the other hand, looks down from above and offers snacks and platitudes, whilst the narrator explains why one approach is infinitely better than the other.
It’s a great video and, in the context of parish ministry, is extremely helpful. I left the conference motivated, enlightened and with a bunch of warnings, advice and ideas that have since borne fruit in our various communities.
I also left feeling a little uncomfortable, to be absolutely honest. Because, if uncomfortable truth be told… the reason I had made it to that conference in the first place; the reason that I’d suddenly found the energy to set up a new group and become more active in the community; the reason that I had finally found my own head and heart light enough to draw alongside other people who were struggling is, (if you’ll pardon the expression)…
Because I’d recently climbed out of somebody’s hole.
Yes. You heard me right.
Now, here’s another truth… I’ve written and rewritten this blog a few times already. Because, although it’s an issue I’m keen to address, I’ve found that it is actually very hard to keep it brief enough not to hurt anyone, whilst also keeping it detailed enough not to come across like a heartless witch! I’m still not convinced I have the balance completely right, to be honest, but I do want to explore it and simply ask for your grace as I do. For it is sensitive; and I can’t paint the full picture, out of respect for the other person involved. However, of all of the posts I’ve seen about empathy and mental health on social media lately, I’m yet to see anything that explores this…
For the truth of the matter is that sitting in one particular dark hole with one particular fox, for as many years as we had been down there, was starting to effect my own mental health.
Now… there’s a selfish predicament to be in.
I mean, it wasn’t the actual person or their unfortunate situation that had gotten too much, I hasten to add. And it was a huge character flaw in me that allowed things to get that far. Nevertheless, the fact is that the increasing demands on my faith, my emotions and my attention did get too much. And it took an overnight retreat, a 24 hour digital detox and a helpful hint from a neutral source to even realise what was going on.
But, there it was.
So… what to do?
I mean, Biblically you just put others before yourself and get on with it, right?
Except things are rarely that simple.
Husband had sent me away on that retreat to sort myself out. I wasn’t coping, mentally or emotionally; and of course, aside from being concerned for me, it was also effecting him. His wellbeing, his capacity for life and ministry, and not to mention our time with the kids. All of which, when you work in this capacity, has a domino effect on a lot of other people too.
And so I went away. And, for various reasons, identified this area, this relationship, as a source of exhaustion and anxiety. And so I stepped back. I climbed out. I didn’t abandon the person, by any means, but I withdrew from certain conversations. I drew the line at certain depths. And yes, very probably, I became the gazelle.
Yet… At home, the impact was immediate. There was absolutely no doubt for either of us, from that week onwards, that this intense relationship had been to the detriment of my own mental health in a very big way. Husband noticed it, I felt it, the kids experienced it. My relationships deepened with those directly surrounding me; I found more time, more energy and more space for more people- more highs, more lows, more holes. It was like this huge weight had been lifted off and I found I could now carry twice as much, with half the strain.
But … The story cannot end there, can it? That is not a happy ending for everyone involved. What of this poor fox, who I actually love and want the best for?
My husband says, “that’s all very well and good, but you need boundaries. You NEED boundaries or you’ll burn out and be no use to anyone!”
Which I believe is perhaps easier said in a professional capacity, than done in the personal. I mean, how do you maintain boundaries, in a personal context, without exercising some level of judgement on the other person? Without having to identify that they are asking too much of you; or that actually, what you think they’re asking isn’t really what they need anyway?
How do you then manage this without hurting them or the friendship?
How do you move past, avoid and discourage unwelcome behaviour, without discouraging the person?
How do you navigate all of these thoughts and feelings within an ongoing relationship, without giving into frustration, resentment and the bad kind of judgement?!
How do you not tire of working out the right thing to do, in order to do it, when you’re already so exhausted to begin with?!
Honestly… I’m not sure.
I know I’ve failed a number of times, in a number of ways, and will likely fail again.
Thankfully, however, I also know that the Bible says, “My grace is sufficient for you, and my power is made perfect in weakness.”
I think I’m just starting to realise, in a very real kind of way, that God never created or called us to fulfil the needs of another person; nor to fulfil all of His laws and commandments on our own. That when Jesus said He was sending ‘The Helper,” He actually really meant it. That when Paul says, “pray continually“, it’s because we really need it.
Love is hard. Obedience is hard. Forgiveness is hard. Relationships are hard. And judgement is not clear cut. Each and every situation requires an intention and an act that I often fear I don’t have the wisdom or the capacity for. But He does. By His Son He says, “come to me, all of you who are heavy burdened, and I will give you rest.” And by His Spirit He says, “all things are possible, through Christ who gives us strength.”
And so I’m training myself to ask. In each and every situation; in the difficult moments as they so often arise. For more strength, more wisdom, more compassion, more discernment; for more vision, more patience, more self-control, more energy… and absolutely more grace. Trusting that when we ask, “He gives generously to all, without finding fault.”
For though we mess up and make up and screw up and give up… thankfully … God’s Grace never stops.