Within this past year I’ve finally begun to call myself a writer. I’ve been writing as a way to gain clarity and recover from wounds I’ve suffered during my life’s journey, but lately I’ve been thinking more often of how I can use my writing to help others in their own recovery processes.
I’m learning that, most of the time, the best way to help others is to refrain from giving advice because it usually comes across as arrogance or an inability to understand what a hurting person is experiencing.
Telling someone what to do often looks like an attack or judgment rather than an entrance into his or her suffering. It is to remain detached and doesn’t require much imagination.
There are instances, yes, when someone needs a quick jab in the ribs to wake up from lousy, destructive patterns of thinking but I believe it can only be productive within a relationship of significant trust. And I think it’s best to use this tactic only sparingly.
When someone is struggling—and especially if it’s a deep suffering—I think there’s no easy answer. It’s beneficial to participate in a slow and arduous mending which requires gentleness and subtlety rather than a sudden jolt of advice.
Empathy, a form of mending, is to show understanding without expressing judgment and I think it has a lot to do with listening very, very carefully and then rewording what a person has said, hopefully without changing the meaning.
Let’s look at the contrast between advice and empathy by bringing in an example. A person may say to you, “My dog died, so I’ve been just sitting around on the couch all day.”
Advice: “You need to get out of the house to take your mind off it.”
Empathy: “You must be feeling terribly sad about losing a wonderful companion.”
Do you see how empathy is much gentler and more respectful? It can be offered not only in spoken words, but also by writing softly.
I’ve begun to play with metaphor and nuance more often in my writing, hoping that through practice I can become more understanding and therefore more helpful. I believe that a piece of writing with multiple layers of meaning may have a deeper, more lasting influence than black and white language containing words that can only be understood at surface level.
We ourselves contain multiple layers of meaning and complexities as well as profound mystery, so why not try to reflect that in our creative works whenever we can? Says me, who has just given you advice and used black and white language to talk about helping others!