holding space for others
by, Elizabeth Jones
When Carrie asked me to write a blog post for her, I was overwhelmed with ideas. Compassion is something that I've directly experienced God's hand in molding me, growing me into a person who better reflects who he wants me to be.
But narrowing down these ideas into something that I could write proved much more challenging. I have witnessed poverty first-hand, and it left me with a lot of responsibility to relay the lessons I’ve learned.
Attending high school in KwaZulu-Natal South Africa gave me the insight to abject poverty. I've seen the hospitals in Swaziland, filled with HIV-infected infants two-to-a-crib with thin arms and legs and eyes bugging from their hallowed face crying alone in dark hallways. I’ve met mothers in Mozambique who walked miles carrying gallons of water on their heads so their husbands and children could bathe and drink.
Seeing so many people who live a life so different than the one I experienced in the States left me with a compelling responsibility to share the lessons I learned.
They aren’t the lessons I thought I’d have learned while living in the third-world either. These aren’t the lessons of being grateful for what I have (although I certainly feel a swelling gratitude for my everyday comfortable life every time I don’t lose electricity in a storm or switch on a faucet with purified, clean water that streams out.)
These lessons are bigger and heavier and much more confusing than anything that could be written on a bumper sticker- because they sometimes lay in direct contrast to the principles we hold dear in our Western culture.
Compassion isn’t feeling sorry for people who aren’t like you.
We have to be careful to avoid becoming a white savior to people who are not like us without understanding their history and personal stories and situations. We cannot come in- swords drawn, banners flying- to save people from their lives that aren’t like ours. The saving isn’t ours to do.
I’m profoundly guilty of this. Swinging into a location to bear witness to the sad, sad stories helping as much as I could in one or two weeks and flying out, grateful for my privilege to leave. This sort of compassion isn’t helping. It doesn't empower the local community. It’s a voyeuristic form of compassion and isn’t helping anyone.
Compassion isn't pity. It doesn’t just apply to the poor.
It's so easy to extend compassion to people who are struggling more than you. It's HARD to extend compassion to those who are more successful, wealthier or otherwise in a better position than you. We've been conditioned to offer compassion to the widows and orphans. And yes, we need to be serving people who are struggling with love and compassion. But, individuals who are in similar economic and class statuses are also worthy of compassion.
After witnessing deep poverty, coming back into wealthy Johannesburg (or even Portland!) was a huge culture shock. We complain about #firstworldproblems and how we should be more grateful.
When I moved back to Portland, a friend of mine took me aside and rebuked me. “Problems are problems no matter where you are,” she told me, in response to my smug eye roll about first world problems and how others have things so much harder. She was right. I am so glad she responded to God’s call to correct my spirit.
And sure, yes, we could be more grateful and complain less.
But when we are called to extend compassion, we aren’t called to admonish frivolous complaints. It is what it is. People complain. We have things that are difficult for us: losing our keys, getting stuck in traffic, or being disappointed about missing a fun event.
There is no hierarchy of problems. If it's hard for someone, it's hard for them.
Holding space for others is an active Holy task.
Holding space is an empathetic way to allow God to work in the heart of people, while you serve them with listening and compassion. By withholding judgment, advice and other guidance, we allow the Holy Spirit to work, transforming the hearts and minds of those around us.
Sometimes, we need to sharpen our relationship, rebuking and correcting those around us, but this cannot happen without self-awareness and compassion for those around us. The Holy Spirit has to be in attendance to our work- even when we are simply offering compassion.
Listening without the desire to change the outcome.
Listening is the greatest form of compassion. It's not giving money; it's not building homes for those in Africa- although those are both important things. Offering a listening ear, without judgment, advice or guidance is a challenge. It's an active way to hold the shape of an imperfect person, supporting them just as they are- even in their imperfection- especially in their imperfection- and allowing God to do the heavy lifting.
We can't change people. No amount of money or prayer or support or love can change a person. Only God can work and move within someone's heart and re-wire their brains and bodies to help them be the most vibrant, whole person that they can be. But we CAN get out of the way to allow God to move. When we offer advice and guidance, we are often under the illusion that we are channeling the holy spirit's words and leading people. However, more often than not, we inadvertently pass along ideas that are rooted in our perspectives and life experiences.
The person we're trying to help has a right to be heard and heal while they seek and explore all that God has in store for them. Their journey is not your journey- and assuming that God takes us each on the same journey is as ignorant as it is self-absorbed.
Often offering compassion is as full and complete as acknowledging that we are all doing the very best we can with the resources and strength we have. Some of us have larger stores of resources and energy and power than others. Offering compassion is the acknowledgment that each human experience is unique, and we all have situations that build us, and these stories look different from person to person. When we assume that another person's values or journey is the same or is similar than us, we can crush seeds that are growing in the heart of those we are supporting.
I'm certainly no expert in holding space for others. It's a task that I have been called to that I am growing into. The Holy Spirit is edifying this skill in me- sometimes painfully and often gently. I've been tremendously blessed by caregivers and friends and family who had the patience and strength to hold space for me to be imperfect and have big bold feelings. They allowed me to fall apart in their arms so that I could be put back together in a fuller, stronger way.
I hope that God will use my words to help you as you search for ways to help - genuinely help- those around you.
As you hold open the space that God uses to transform hearts, I pray that you too will witness the need for this active participation of the love and compassion that we've received and in the healing power of tears, pain, and God's redemption.
Elizabeth Jones is a word-slinger that helps small businesses make their mark with strategic copy. She lives in the suburbs of Portland, Oregon with her husband and two sweet kids. You can find her over at www.writesellwin.com