“What happens when people open their hearts? They get better.”
As we share our message and talk about our ministry and mission at various community groups, civic clubs and churches, we have been troubled by the superficiality we often see. The kidding and time-worn jokes and the “backslapping” takes the place of actual real, honest-to-goodness conversations.
It’s especially evident in the groups we have visited more than one time. The jokes are predictable; the ribbing of one another seems routine and almost scripted. The same people are often “called out” in the same way each time. We can see it coming: the punch lines and the all-knowing laughter. We anticipate the dialogue threads woven through the all-too-familiar fabric of the group:
“What kind of trouble have you gotten into again this week, Harry?”
“Same old, same old. You know how it goes, Steve.”
“Getting enough to eat, Karen? “It’s your own fault if you go away from here hungry.”
“What did you think about the game last Sunday, Kev? Your boys didn’t look too good.”
“Yeah, they disappointed me again, Jen. I don’t know why I watch. They give me heartburn, especially this season.”
And so it goes …
The connections lack depth and intimacy. In fact, they are barely connections at all. What passes for camaraderie and friendship barely penetrates the spirit or the heart.
During one particular luncheon meeting, a gentleman gave a short presentation. Afterward, after most others had left, he quietly lamented, “I’ve been in this group for more than 20 years. This is the first time I’ve actually been asked to share anything.”
His statement, tinged with sadness and hurt, spoke poignantly about how little connection there was among even its longest-serving members.
Another man, whom we know well, has shared about his recent job loss and the depressed state it is leaving him in. Yet, week after week, he continues to return to his civic organization’s luncheon in his finest suit, hiding behind his attire. No one in the group has any true idea about how terribly hard his unemployment is for him.
A woman lingered off to the side in her church’s sanctuary one Sunday morning as we shook hands at the door, following the end of the service and our presentation. We had spoken to the congregation that morning about forgiveness and reconciliation. She waited until we were the only three persons left in the room. She wanted no one else to hear what she had to share; she asked us to write it to prove a point:
“My husband died three months ago. I still leave a place for him in the pew beside me. I feel his presence there, and I like that. But there’s something that I can’t forgive him for. Something he did years ago. Something that got him in big trouble. No one else here knows but one other woman and the pastor. I didn’t even tell the pastor until after my husband died. He couldn’t believe what I told him. I still can barely believe it. My own children don’t even know. I couldn’t bear to tell them that about their father … ”
She went on to tell us the story.
“The reason I haven’t told anyone else here is that they talk too much. They gossip. I know them too well. I can’t share this with them.”
Her greatest burden. Her deepest shame. Her private struggle. Her broken heart.
It couldn’t be shared, for it didn’t feel safe. In her own community of faith, her own need to unburden herself was left unfulfilled.
What her marriage appeared to be on the surface wasn’t the reality within it or in her heart. She struggled with a brokenness that couldn’t be told to those with whom she interacted most closely. How sad we felt for her.
At another church, the pastor shared painfully with us that the members of her congregation couldn’t truly reveal deeper questions of faith to one another. One woman, a 40-year member, had recently confided in her that she has always had questions about the literal nature of the Bible. She just wasn’t certain that it was inerrant, word for word absolutely true. She was afraid to reveal that to anyone else, afraid that she would be judged to be unfaithful, heretical, misguided. She was a 40-year member! And still she didn’t feel safe enough to share a theological question, to explore a basic matter of belief. If not there, after all that time, then when and where could she share?
How sad it is for her, too, that she feared the criticism of her fellow church members for a profound question about the faith she was trying authentically to live out. What she was always taught had haunted and troubled her; she wanted to explore those feelings in an atmosphere of acceptance and in an attitude of growth. But it was too frightening, too intimidating. To us, it’s the last thing a church – or any true community of people – should be – frightening and intimidating.
As we ate lunch with another group before sharing our mission with them, a “get-well” card was passed around the table for the members to sign. Amidst the backslapping and joking around, one member, admirably, wanted to remember another member of the group who was in the hospital for surgery. She wanted to wish the other woman well and to let her know that the group was thinking of her. When the card was passed to one of the men, he suddenly became agitated and barked to the woman who initiated the signing,
“I don’t really appreciate us doing this. My wife has had multiple surgeries over the last few years. Not once did she get a card. Not once did this group send anything to her. If you want to know why she doesn’t come to these meetings anymore, well, that’s the reason why.”
An awkward silence fell around the table. The host who had invited us, looked at us self-consciously, embarrassed that we had to witness this outburst. Perhaps too, he was embarrassed that the group had failed to reach out to one of its members when she was in need of encouragement and support. They met together every week for lunch. Yet apparently they never let her know they were thinking of her during the times of her greatest need. Her husband’s resentment was palpable, a long-simmering hostility that was evident throughout the rest of the meeting, as he made sarcastic, caustic comments to the others and about the business at hand. The evident superficiality of the group, after so much time shared together, had obviously angered him. Lying just below the surface, a “get-well” card passed among the group caused the resentment to bubble over. What was this group, after all? Was it not a community in which the members were connected? Were their interactions merely surface level? In his mind, apparently so.
Why do we belong to groups – civic, community, church? What are our reasons for entering in and expressing a commitment as one of the members?
Are the jokes and the laughs reason enough? The food we may eat, the drinks we may have together? Is the mission of the group, its work and outreach, enough? Are the connections merely for business and to fill out our résumés?
Is the backslapping enough? Does it fill our souls? Does it touch our hearts? Does it bring us meaning? Is there a larger purpose?
What is a community for? For us, a community – of faith, of those who share similar values, of common purpose – is a place for us to know that we are not alone, that we are in this life together, that we are bound to one another in commitment and, we hope, in respect, trust and love.
No, every member of every community of whatever kind can’t and doesn’t need to be our best friend. But don’t we all desire – and need – deeper bonds, greater connections, more fulfilling relationships?
Backslapping only gets us so far. It doesn’t really connect us with those around us and simply fosters superficial relationships. But by not being afraid to connect more deeply with another person around us – by asking questions of depth, by being willing to actually be present enough to listen to the answers and by showing another person that we want to know them and that we care about their lives, we being to develop relationships of real meaning and support, which enriches and values us all.
Aren’t we called to delight in one another as God delights in us, and to care for one another in real and meaningful ways?
After all, aren’t we all here on this earth together? Aren’t we all here to support and help one another? Aren’t we called as children of God to connect as caring, loving brothers and sisters? Isn’t growing to know each other more one of the most compassionate ways we can enhance our connection? For it is in knowing and being known that we are able to be the greatest support and help of all.
One of the solutions to get beyond the backslapping that we have found that works is to ask good questions, questions that foster greater depth and vulnerability. Here is an example from our first book, Someone To Tell It To: Sharing Life’s Journey, where one question changed dynamic of the meeting and took it to a much deeper level:
One night we had the privilege of meeting with a men’s cancer support group. There were nine men living with cancers of the prostate, throat, pancreas, colon, and bladder. Some had been living with cancer for years, some for only a few months. But each was on a journey he neither wanted nor requested.
We were amazed at how freely these men shared their stories, at how comfortable and open they were about their experiences and feelings. They spoke of incontinence, depression, fear, loneliness, and doubt. But they also shared stories of humor, faith, gratitude, courage, love, and supportive communities. They talked about what they had learned and how they had grown since their diagnoses. There were stories about being more patient, grateful, and embracing life more fully. They spoke of greater trust.
Then we asked, “What is one thing that you have never shared with anyone else about your journey with cancer?”
The room got suddenly quiet. Uncomfortable. Then, one man, the newest member of the group, responded, “I am impotent. I feel like half a man. It isn’t easy. I don’t like it. There hasn’t been anyone else I could tell.”
Finally, it was out. We could see his sadness. We could feel his relief. His big secret. The fear of many men. He got it out, and now they all knew.
But the eight others did not respond to it. They didn’t need to. We realized that the rest of them had already been together so long and had already shared so many of their most intimate thoughts and feelings about the cancer that had invaded their lives that they had trust. This was just another story told in a safe and trusting place.
We left impressed and heartened and continue to be even today as we reflect on that night. These men were living authentic lives, sharing their pains and sorrows; they were not covering up their messiness, their illness, or their feelings of defenselessness. They were more at peace than we imagined possible. They were brothers together in a community of support, a community that allowed them to share in safety, with honesty and with grace.
Often, it takes a life-threatening or life-altering event, like cancer for example, to cause us to think about and assess the value and meaning of our lives. Often, it takes these events to force us to face ourselves and to ask whether we are living authentically or not.
For these men, they were in a safe environment in which they didn’t have to tidy up the unsavory aspects of their lives—their cancer, their vulnerability in it, the ugliness of the disease, the fear of potential outcomes, or the fact that some of them felt less than whole because of it. It’s easy to be authentic when we don’t have to pretend or hide. Once the secret is out, once the story’s told, it becomes easier to live with it. It doesn’t matter what the issue is—loneliness, a pregnancy, sorrow, guilt— whatever it is, once we do not have to keep it to ourselves, we can begin to embrace it. Once we can share it with those we can trust, we are freer, and a weight has been lifted from our shoulders.
All of us long for that kind of authenticity. But for many reasons we do not know how to find it. We are afraid of being exposed, criticized, or not being liked for who we really are.