“How do we sit with people who are living with extended uncertainty? Many cross-cultural workers are suffering at the moment. I’m finding it really hard”, said Rose*, a member care worker. Her face twisted as she said this to her member care support group.
Liz*, another member care worker, asked, “What do we say to cross-cultural workers living in the stress of extended uncertainty? How do we respond when there are no answers? Some people don’t know if and when they can return to Australia. Others, are stuck in Australia and don’t know if and when they can get to location.”
How would you respond?
An analysis of the experience of the cross-cultural workers as they live with uncertainty and a lack of control, was the focus of the previous blog post, Betwixt and Between. Here we turn our attention to the member carers’ experience and their discomfort.
What are Rose and Liz experiencing as they sit with cross-cultural workers experiencing uncertainty or suffering?
Helplessness is uncomfortable. Many member care workers can relate to Webb (1990: 76), a pastoral carer, who writes about dreading pastoral situations when she didn’t know what to ‘do’ or when there was nothing she could ‘do’ to help. Similarly, Rose and Liz can’t do anything about the uncertainty their cross-cultural workers are living with in this situation. A lack of control is being experienced by both the member care workers and their cross-cultural workers. Member care encounters like these are similar to visits to the sick in hospital by chaplains, where patients are waiting to see how nature will take its course.
What is our role?
Companionship during suffering is a significant gift. Schaum writes about the power of companionship, or walking alongside, those who are suffering.
Companionship is the greatest gift we can offer another who is in pain. In the presence of one who is experiencing difficulties of any severity, our primary gift is not facilitating a remedy for the problems at hand, but rather that of being a journey mate through their personal hardship as God’s purposes are explored… What all of us long for when life is harsh is accompaniment… There is no greater gift we can offer someone in the midst of lasting suffering than our simple, abiding, enduring presence.Shaum, 2012: 132
Giving ‘attention’ to, or being fully present with, cross-cultural workers as they wait, is important in order to listen well and provide good member care. Kelly (2012: 25), an experienced chaplain, writes of the importance of listening with attention, providing ‘an attuned, non-judgemental presence in our waiting with others’ which conveys our concern and compassion. Webb (1990: 76) writes of her discovery of the power and significance of being fully present with people in times of trial. Waiting attentively is costly for member care workers.
Waiting attentively is a draining experience but even more so when uncomfortable and anxiety provoking. Kelly (2012: 32) writes that the ability to provide a non-anxious presence is vital for pastoral care. We may end our attentiveness prematurely due to our discomfort with the cross-cultural worker’s suffering and so limit the pastoral encounter (Kelly, 2012: 33). It is easy to respond to our anxiety by ‘doing’ things.
It is common to want to take action when feeling helpless or uncomfortable. Many member care workers gain comfort in unfamiliar situations by getting busy at some activity. Rather than simply ‘being’ with the cross-cultural worker in their distress, we might offer a cup of tea, tissues, hugs, some other physical assistance or engage in anxious chatter (Kelly 2012: 34). Sometimes jumping too quickly to prayer can be another way we avoid our uneasiness and block a member care encounter. Kelly (2012: 33-34) recounts the story of a chaplain who just didn’t know how to respond to a patient and so asked, “Can I pray for you?”; the patient replied, “If it helps you”. While most cross-cultural workers will want to be prayed for and certainly, prayer is a vital component of member care encounters, it can invalidate their concerns if it is offered too soon. We need to wait until it is an appropriate time before we offer to pray.
Waiting attentively with another who is suffering or sad, seeking to hold them and the paradoxes and the unanswerable questions both verbalised or sensed in self or the other and allowing all that to be, is an immense challenge for any human being… As humans, we all innately want to make things better for others and ourselves, we want to get rid of pain and regain control; our first inclination is to stick a band aid on any open wound.Kelly (2012: 32)
Waiting with cross-cultural workers in these uncertain situations is more challenging for some than others. Anthropologists, Lingenfelter and Mayers (2003: 79), argue that some societies and personalities are more task-orientated than person-orientated. For those of us who are from more task-orientated cultures or have a more task-orientated personality, waiting is even more difficult. Our discomfort with waiting can also vary according to our status in some cultures.
In our society there is a direct correlation between status and waiting. The more important your status, the less you have to wait. Waiting reminds us that we are not in charge, that we cannot command instantly whatever it is we have to seek, so we have to wait.McBride, 2003: 22
Fortunately, all member care workers can keep growing their ability to wait and provide a non-anxious presence.
Undoubtedly, the ability to provide others with a ‘non-anxious presence’ (Newell, 2008) in their time of uncertainty or transition is central to the provision of sensitive pastoral and spiritual care. What is key here is our understanding that it is perfectly normal at times to feel helpless or useless in the face of another situation or personal predicament, and not to feel overly anxious or guilty about having these feelings. In short, it is in normalising these feelings for ourselves, as well as others, and giving ourselves permission to feel this way that we free ourselves to some degree from being overly uptight and uncomfortable. This can enable us to stay with another when we both sense, as carer and cared for, that, ultimately, the current situation is out of our control and has to be lived through rather than fixed or overcome.Kelly (2012: 32)
By normalising the discomfort we feel as member care workers, we can increase our capacity to provide a non-anxious presence to our cross-cultural workers. It is normal, or natural, for Rose and Liz to feel helpless and anxious in these types of member care encounters. They are living with uncertainty, just as their cross-cultural workers are. When member care workers realise that it’s normal to feel helpless and useless, then they don’t need to feel overly anxious or guilty but having those feelings (Kelly, 2012: 32).
Our helplessness as member care workers is a ‘touching place’ with the liminal space our cross-cultural workers are inhabiting (Kelly, 2012: 32). Both member care workers and cross-cultural workers are inhabiting the common ground of waiting and experiencing a sense of being out of control that occurs when living with uncertainty.
Can Rose and Liz sit with their own helplessness, as well as their cross-cultural workers’ suffering?
Sometimes we are conscious of our failings as member carers after pastoral encounters. Due to our anxiety and discomfort with waiting we might limit our provision of care by offering a tissue or chattering. We wonder, “How much did I limit the care of this cross-cultural worker?” This reminds me of the image of a misshapen piece of pottery, created by an apprentice potter. Despite the imperfections, there is beauty in its form, as well as potential in the apprentice potter.
It is important that we continue to let the Bible interrogate our understanding. (Read more about our use of the Bible in the Theological Reflection Cycle blog post.)
A story to consider
Elkanah and his two wives, Hannah and Penninah, had come to Shiloh to offer worship and sacrifices to the LORD. Eli was a priest there. Hannah was very distressed because she was a barren woman. Barrenness was accounted a great disgrace for a Hebrew woman; a source of shame. Hannah’s distress was increased by Penninah, who did have children, and provoked her about her barrenness.
Hannah went and started praying to the Lord at the Temple.
“As she kept on praying to the Lord, Eli observed her mouth. Hannah was praying in her heart, and her lips were moving but her voice was not heard. Eli thought she was drunk and said to her, “How long are you going to stay drunk? Put away your wine.”Not so, my lord,” Hannah replied, “I am a woman who is deeply troubled. I have not been drinking wine or beer; I was pouring out my soul to the Lord. Do not take your servant for a wicked woman; I have been praying here out of my great anguish and grief.”
Eli answered, “Go in peace, and may the God of Israel grant you what you have asked of him.”
She said, “May your servant find favour in your eyes.” Then she went her way and ate something, and her face was no longer downcast.1 Samuel 1:12-18
Just as Hannah was distressed by her barrenness and Penninah’s provocation, many cross-cultural workers are distressed by these times of significant uncertainty.
Eli’s false accusation of drunkenness was a very poor start to his pastoral encounter with Hannah! As member care workers, we can also limit our encounters by responding inappropriately to cross-cultural workers. Fortunately this wasn’t the end in the story of Hannah and Eli, since she corrected his mistake.
Although Eli did poorly in the first instance as a pastoral carer, he went on to offer Hannah words of comfort and blessing. Later, after God had answered Hannah’s prayer and blessed her with a son, Samuel, and she had handed him over to Eli to fulfil her promise to the Lord, Eli also helped Samuel to discern God’s voice (1 Samuel 3). This mirrors our experience as member care workers. While we may block a pastoral encounter at one point, God works so that the cross-cultural workers may be in a much better place in the end. In the long-term, God wasn’t limited by Eli’s mistake, and nor is God limited by our blockages during pastoral encounters. We can also learn from our mistakes, just as an apprentice potter does.
Blessed be God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies, and the God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our tribulation, that we may be able to comfort those who are in any trouble by the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God.2 Corinthians 1: 3-4
What happened? How could these member care workers be cared for?
Rose and Liz could explore their feelings of discomfort with their support group and supervisors. Rose’s and Liz’s support group members and supervisors could provide them with validation, normalisation and reassurance about their feelings of discomfort and so reduce their anxiety. Validation is about assisting a person ‘feel that their emotions and struggles make sense and are understandable given the circumstances’ (This Way Up – Knowing, 2020: 8). Normalisation labels something as normal or ordinary, when a person is feeling it is weird or abnormal. Reassurance is about easing someone’s doubts or fears. More about validation, normalisation and reassurance is set out in the Betwixt and Between blog post.
Rose and Liz can be assisted to improve their member care provision.
In order to improve their capacity to wait attentively and provide a non-anxious presence, Rose and Liz could regularly explore this capacity with their supervisors or member care support group (Kelly, 2012: 34). They could reflect about if and when they might be employing strategies to avoid discomfort, such as anxious chatter, making cups of tea or offering to do something. This will raise Rose and Liz’s awareness of their practices of avoidance.
Having built an awareness of the temptation to avoid their own discomfort and having received comfort from the validation, normalisation and reassurance Rose and Liz received, their anxiety may be reduced. This in turn may increase their capacity to wait attentively and provide a non-anxious presence, and so, to provide effective member care. With the comfort Rose and Liz have received, they can in turn may bless their cross-cultural workers.
After listening to and waiting attentively with their cross-cultural workers, Rose and Liz might offer validation, normalisation or reassurance to them, if appropriate. Examples of how validation can be achieved are sentences such as, “That sounds frustrating” or “I can understand why you’re exhausted”. Examples of normalisation are sentences such as, “It is natural to feel discombobulated during these times of uncertainty” or “It is normal to feel quite tired during transition”. To provide reassurance, Rose or Liz might say, “I’m so sorry you had to cancel your holiday, especially when I know that you have been looking forward to seeing your grandchildren. I hope you get to see them soon.” Reassurance is also provided by companionship, offering to walk alongside them, if that is possible (This Way Up – Knowing, 2020: 9).
* All names of people and places in this blog have been changed to preserve anonymity.
Kelly, E. (2012) Personhood and Presence: Self as a resource for spiritual and pastoral care. London; New York: t&tclark.
Knapp, H. (ed.) (2015) ‘Emotional Communication’, in Therapeutic Communication: Developing Professional Skills. Thousand Oaks: SAGE Publications, Inc., pp. 89–108. Available at: https://us.sagepub.com/sites/default/files/upm-assets/61121_book_item_61121.pdf.
‘Knowing What to Say: During the COVID-19 Pandemic’ (2020). THIS WAY UP, St Vincent’s Hospital Sydney Limited. Available at: https://thiswayup.org.au/wp-content/uploads/2021/02/THIS-WAY-UP_Knowing-What-to-Say.pdf.
Lingenfelter, S.G. and Mayers, M.K. (2003) Ministering Cross-Culturally: An Incarnational Model for Personal Relationships. Second. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic.
McBride, D. (2003) Waiting on God. Hampshire: Redemptionist Publications.
Schaum, S.E. (2017) Uninvited Companion. Colorado Springs: Cresta Riposo.
Webb, K.S. (1990) ‘Pastoral Identity and the Ministry of Presence’, Journal of Pastoral Care, 44(1), pp. 76–79. doi:10.1177/002234099004400112.