Years ago our family inherited a dog. His name was Oliver—named by his previous owner. Oliver was a Springer Spaniel / Poodle mix. His personality confirmed it. To say he was very excitable is an understatement. He could jump five feet in the air with all four of his feet simultaneously off the ground; making eye contact with me at the word spelled out, “W-A-L.K”.
I loved Oliver. We were made of the same stuff (or perhaps you could say we came from the same breed): loveable, laughable, faithful, and “in-your-face”. But that’s not all. God created us both with the gift of compassion. Rejoicing with those who rejoice and mourning with those who mourn. For instance, our house was located close to a hospital. And whenever an ambulance would drive by, siren’s blaring, Oliver howled and ran frantically along our fence line until the ambulance was no longer within earshot.
Typically, I was the one who took him for walks—simply because, I was the only one who fully understood his “compassionate” nature. Assuring those who cautiously approached us to just give us some time to get it all out of our system and they’d love us! Most times I was right.
While we couldn’t trust him not to bolt out our front door at any given opportunity, eventually we felt that he had at least earned his right to freedom within the bounds of our house. The first time we let him roam uncrated we came home to an undecipherable, wretched stench. We soon discovered he’d taken up reading while we were gone. He had thoroughly salivated all over every page of the book “Fit to be tied” by Bill Hybels, before tearing it to shreds and leaving evidence throughout the entire house. Fit to be tied? Yes he was! However, feeling this was an exception as a result of his new-found freedom, we decided it was only fair to give him another chance. That’s the day we came home to the same stench. Only this time he’d read and shred a golf book belonging to my husband called, “Final Rounds”. Final rounds indeed! No more reading for Oliver. His roaming days were done.
I envied those dog owners whose dogs obediently walked at their side, sometimes leash-less. I, on the other hand, became a self-trained body-builder as I reined Oliver in with all my might so he didn’t run away and ward off all prospects of making friends in our community. I did manage to salvage a few friends in spite of Oliver’s social habits. And so did Oliver. One of his dog friend’s was a beautiful, shiny coated auburn Irish Setter named Quincy.
One particularly cold winter’s day in mid-January, Quincy and his owner met Oliver and I at a natural area where we could allow our dogs to run free. As the two dogs played happily together, our conversation meaningfully unfolded until we heard a deep, loud, thunderous crack. Alarmed, we both ran to the nearby creek where we discovered Oliver had fallen through the ice in the middle of the creek and now hung helplessly on the edge by his two front paws.
All I could think of at that moment in time as I stared into his panicked eyes was the regret I’d experience if I left him to slip beneath the ice and be swept away with the current. So I did the unthinkable; against every fireman’s ice-safety rules. I lay down flat on my belly and shimmied the six feet across the ice to rescue him. When I reached him I grabbed a hold of him and yanked with all my might, only to break through the ice myself while he still hung on to the edge. Thankfully, the frigid water was only waste high. And within seconds my friend shimmied to both our rescue. With a quick word of thanks, I made my way home in record time where I promptly crated Oliver and jumped into a hot shower to thaw out.
While I’d never advise anyone to perform this type of mindless rescue, that’s my point. My heart was in rescue mode and waste deep in the water before my mind had anything to do with it! This is the story of my life! I think with my heart. I respond to my life with my heart. I speak and write “straight from the heart” ;) And I minister to individuals with all my heart. To the degree that if someone is drowning in their sorrow or pain my tendency is to jump in heart-first. Immersing myself in the deep waters of their life to rescue them. Leaving not only my unthinking mind, but my husband and kids on the shore!
In my own defense, God created me this way. He wired me to feel deeply the pain of others. I’m an Empath by nature. Just like Jesus, by the way! Jesus had only to look upon a crowd to feel compassion on them. He wept with Mary at the tomb of her brother; his friend Lazarus. He sweated drops of blood in the heart wrenching, emotional agony of Gethsemane. Out of His love for each one of us, He gave His own life to save us. The difference is, He’s the Saviour and I’m not.
Years of emotionally exhausting rescue missions along with an ongoing battle with compassion fatigue has taught me that it’s more effective to stand on the shore and throw out a life preserver instead of being pulled underwater and have both of us drown. I’ve learned the need to tap into my Saviour’s divine “How to” manual—the Bible. Not to be Jesus. But rather to manage others’ pain more like Jesus. Here are a few tips I’ve learned on how to keep from drowning in someone else’s sorrows:
• Let go of the Saviour Complex. When we try to be a saviour, we replace a person’s need of the Saviour.
• Validate pain. Weep with those who weep. Acknowledge that it hurts. But let others feel their own pain before attempting to take it from them.
• Ask good questions. This is counseling Jesus’ style. Explore the Gospels to find every time Jesus leads discussion with a question. Rather than fixing a person’s problems, ask questions that will help them draw their own conclusions.
• Assist without enabling. When we take on the full responsibility of other’s problems, we do a disservice to that person. Allow them to work through the tough stuff with the assurance that you’re there for them.
• Pray for, or better yet, with the person. Praying offers the problem into the hands of the One who can work it for their good.
• Provide practical help that will share in and alleviate some of their anguish without being the sole provider.
• Encourage: send an email, mail a card, make a phone call.
• Throw the lifeline called Jesus. Rather than feel responsible to give all the answers, offer the one who is the Answer. Point them to Jesus.
“Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our troubles, so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves receive from God. For just as we share abundantly in the sufferings of Christ, so also our comfort abounds through Christ. If we are distressed, it is for your comfort and salvation; if we are comforted, it is for your comfort, which produces in you patient endurance of the same sufferings we suffer. And our hope for you is firm, because we know that just as you share in our sufferings, so also you share in our comfort.” (2 Cor. 1:3-7).
Lisa Elliott is an inspirational speaker and award-winning author of The Ben Ripple and Dancing in the Rain. Additionally, she has written articles for Just Between Us Magazine and devotionals for theStory. She and her pastor-husband, David, have four children (3 on earth, 1 in heaven) and serve the Lord together in Ottawa, Ontario, Canada.
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