It’s Not About Platitudes When Confronted With Suffering

Even if we are correct, it is often better to shut up and say nothing.

You know, we Christians can sometimes be hard on Jewish traditions. It is true that Jesus often called out the Pharisees for their traditions, but we forget that He only did so when it conflicted with true righteous living and/or was done for the exaltation of self. We should rethink this. We should especially pay attention to a race and a religion that has endured much suffering and take note. Or, have we forgotten that Christianity was originally viewed as just another branch of Judaism for about a century?

As I sit here in Colorado just on the other side of Denver from Aurora, where a man shot up a movie theater, and day 35 of the trial of a mass murderer has concluded, it amazes me to already hear in the news about another mass killing in Charleston, SC.
I was on the way home from work when I was flipping through some radio stations (really, we need to get some better stations out here), and I happened upon Glenn Beck. Maybe that was good timing, actually.  Beck is often a flake, and yet he is just as often spot-on (which is more than I can say about most radio talking heads). He was taking note of the grace and dignity that many of the survivors and residents displayed just after the event, even to the point of extending forgiveness to the man who had so wronged them.
The juxtaposition to recent calamities is striking. It seems it has become an American right to riot in the streets whenever someone is unjustly killed. I think this country is still blessed to some degree to have people working against the tidal wave of hatred that seems to doom this country, people like “Alveda King Calls for Prayer in Wake of SC Massacre: ‘Hate Cannot Drive out Hate‘”.
I pondered about how can I write about such events? What can I really say?  After all, I’ve never lived there, unlike the author of Concretized Christianity, who wrote “When It’s Not Safe to Worship God in Public Places”.  Anything I could add to that would likely be not worth writing about. It would probably be trite platitudes.
And, yet, how often have I heard trite platitudes offered to someone who is suffering? Perhaps the worst is, “I know how you feel.” Most times, no, you do not.  If you are tempted to use that phrase, you’d better back it up with concrete evidence, and even if true it rarely is a good idea to say those words.
It seems that many religious people view their approach to every portion of life as a recipe. Have a problem? Quote a trite saying. Have issues? Quote another trite saying. Trying to get out of a jam? Rehash some formula that may or may not even apply to the situation.
And, yet again, we are human beings, and human beings, like it or not, are ritualistic. We have rituals for graduating school, weddings, burials and much, much more.  The Bible, and especially the Old Testament, is filled with rituals. Passover, the taking of the bread and the wine, is a ritual. Our services are loosely formalized, and thus are a ritual.
So, what is the difference?
The difference, my friend, is who is served by it.  The offering of a trite platitude, a cute recipe for a disaster, a rote answer for people feeling grief and pain or even “I know how you feel” is just a way to make the person extending the platitude feel good. It does absolutely nothing for the bereaved, but the platitude-bearer can check an item off their list, feeling a sense of accomplishment for having done something.
Compare this to shiva.
When Glenn Beck mentioned that, it piqued my interest. I have to admit that the only thing I knew about shiva was from Babylon 5.  Commander Susan Ivanova had a rocky relationship with her father, but she tried to make some sort of amends towards the end. Perhaps because of it being so rocky, and thus painful, she did not feel the need to grieve, that is, to have shiva. When her uncle, a rabbi, visited the station, he insisted that she have shiva, and she initially resisted. She eventually gave in, but more because of a sense of duty to her uncle than for herself.
According to Wikipedia article “Shiva (Judaism)“:

Shiva (Hebrew: שבעה‎, literally “seven”) is the week-long mourning period in Judaism for first-degree relatives: father, mother, son, daughter, brother, sister, and spouse. The ritual is referred to as “sitting shiva.” Immediately after burial, people assume the halakhic status of “avel” (Hebrew: אבל ; “mourner”). This state lasts for seven days, during which family members traditionally gather in one home (preferably the home of the deceased) and receive visitors.

The above is just background information, though, as it is important to know what it is. That’s not really what got my attention, though. Since I cannot recall exactly what Beck and company said, here is a bit more from Wikipedia:

Traditionally, no greetings are exchanged and visitors wait for the mourners to initiate conversation, or remain silent if the mourners do not do so, out of respect for their bereavement. Once engaged in conversation by the mourners, it is appropriate for visitors to talk about the deceased, sharing stories of their life.

I cannot help but think of things that have been said to those who suffer when I read or hear about something like this. Some things are so bad, you really wonder if the person saying them even has a clue:

  • If you are experiencing trials, you must be sinning. [Shades of Job’s friends, huh?]
  • Don’t worry. After you are gone, your husband will find another to take care of him. [Makes you wonder if it isn’t a secret desire of the woman saying it, doesn’t it?]
  • If you would only take colloidal silver, you wouldn’t have all these health problems. [Thank you, but I already saw a doctor. You know, someone who spent years studying this sort of thing.]
  • God needed an angel. [OK, maybe not in the COG, but have we said something just as callous?]
  • It was God’s will. [So, God wants me to suffer?]
  • Satan did it. [Did you see him do it? Please let me know now so I can avoid you from now on if you did.]
  • It’s this evil world. [OK, maybe that is true, but that helps me how?]
  • In life, some rain must fall. [And your “advice” is all wet as well.]
  • Pain/Death is part of life. [Again, true, but does that make me want to go on living?]
  • And perhaps my least favorite: What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. [Tell that to my dead alcoholic father. That’s where that saying takes you! Otherwise, I expect you to eat rat poison every day and tell me how you feel.]

No, sometimes it is better to shut up and simply be there for someone. That’s what shiv should show us.
Commander Ivanova learned that ritual can be a good thing. Even if we aren’t Jewish, we can learn from a people who have suffered and died suffering for centuries. We also need to learn that there is a difference between rituals that heal and rituals that wound.
We need to discern between good and bad even in this.