I still remember the stares.
Sitting on the back pew in church as people would walk by, I would make eye contact. Eye contact with faces that seemed to convey pity (“It is so sad what happened.”) or doubt (“Is he even sober now?”).
To be fair, I cannot say with absolute certainty that those questions were in the minds of people as they walked by. But it sure did feel like they were. Every glance. Every whispered conversation. Every head shake. It was all so overwhelming.
And let’s be honest: I was in the wrong. I had lied. I had tried to cover up what I was doing. I got caught. It wasn’t as if I had an epiphany and confessed all my wrongdoings. I was confronted as a result of my own actions and finally ran out of escape routes.
So it was time for me to endure—not only the natural consequences for my actions, but also the fallout in all my relationships. I had hurt many people close to me. I had created a situation that also affected, in indirect ways, many other people. There were a lot of questions. In places I once was present I now was absent. In places I once had a leadership role I now had little purpose.
People wondered. People questioned. People assumed.
When my world fell apart, that was only the beginning. I had a lot left to endure.
It is difficult to witness. It arouses feelings of despair, hurt, betrayal, shock, confusion. It leads to many questions. It is something we are rarely prepared for.
And the announcement can come in a number of ways: a social media post, an overheard conversation, from the church pulpit, in a newsletter. When we learn the news, our first response is often stunned silence.
Then, the questions start popping in our head: “What did they do?” “What happened?” “Was this a mutual decision?” “I had no idea anything like this was going on; how long has this been an issue?” “How is the person going to fare now?”
These questions are legitimate. They are part of the human experience of curiosity.
And we must resist the urge to ask them.
I have spent a lot of time with people in recovery. There is an interesting dynamic at play with many of them: they are learning to share their stories—their experience, strength, and hope—with others. They learn to love sharing those stories.
But they almost always hate answering questions.
The content is the same. The details are the same. The story is the same. So what is the difference?
I am a big fan of stories. I am a big fan of vulnerability. I am a big fan of confession and accountability partners/groups. I think if more of us could learn how to share more openly and more frequently it would greatly increase our community in numerous ways.
But still, we need to stop asking those questions.
When someone’s world falls apart, asking those questions often serves to satisfy our need to have questions answered, but it rarely serves to provide hope and healing for the person who is hurting.
On the other hand, making yourself available for people to come to you makes a world of difference. You can be the person that others will come to when you show that your primary purpose is to walk alongside those who are hurting. And you can do that with an infinitesimally small amount of information.
All you need for walking alongside somebody is compassion. In fact, the fewer words you speak the better. Just be present. Just listen. Offer some words: words of comfort; words of hope; words of accountability to help prevent something similar from happening again.
I do still remember the stares (whether they were real or imagined doesn’t make much of a difference). But I also remember the people who were present. I remember the people who listened.
Can we all be people who listen?