There are lots of nice folks in the world who care about other people and are willing to get involved and lend a helping hand in times of trial. Here is a parable about those people.
An explorer walking in the jungle fell into some quicksand. The first person to come upon him and see his plight, was deeply moved and plunged into the quicksand with him. Holding the explorer tightly, the would-be rescuer spoke encouraging words of positivity and hopefulness to the explorer. The result of his compassionate efforts was that there were now two people slowly sinking into the quicksand.
The next person to come that way saw the two and tried to help by throwing sticks to them from a long, safe distance away. Some of the sticks simply sank into the quicksand around the two. Other sticks actually hit the two men on top of their heads causing injury in addition to their plight of being stuck in quicksand. The two struggling men were no safer.
A third person happened upon the scene. Seeing two men in peril and another throwing sticks at them, the last fellow decided to get a branch, a very long and sturdy branch. Standing at the edge of the quicksand, on firm ground, he reached the branch out to the two sinking men and pulled them to safety.
I know people who’ve gotten themselves into bad situations, kind of like quicksand. I’m talking about the kind of deal where a person makes a bad decision and there are negative consequences. The person’s reaction to the painful consequences is to make more bad decisions. Those of course are followed by more negative consequences. In spite of consistent negative consequences, the person seems resolute in his or her commitment to making bad decisions.
I also know the temptation to jump head long into their drama. It’s really strong when you care deeply for someone and they’re about to suffer real pain. Long ago I gave into the temptation regularly. I felt that I had to if I were to be a caring friend. I had the added pressure of being a Jesus representative. So into the quicksand I would dive. This is what happens when people with a mercy gift but no competency in relational boundaries attempt to help someone with deep emotional, spiritual problems. The helper can get drawn into the drama and both can become overwhelmed.
After getting burned and burned out several times over I quit jumping into other people’s drama. I did what many people do when they still care but are tired of being sucked into chaos and pain. In fact my ministry training prepared me very well to do this kind of intervention. I was trained to lob theological doctrines at people from a safe, detached emotional distance. The doctrines were true, but without a personal, relational delivery, truths ring hollow. People need mentors/disciplers who can model how to apply life principles in real circumstances. Using Scripture to stay at an emotional arm’s length usually ends up creating little sustained change in the person.
It’s a real trick keeping healthy boundaries so as not to get dragged into another’s dysfunctions but drawing close enough to their heart to be able to connect with and assist them. Most of us were not born with the knowledge and skill to be able to do this. Many of us have never been shown how to do this. I recommend doing two things to equip yourself to be helpful to people you care about, take a listening class and read a book on Boundaries.
I’ve had lots of people tell me they were great listeners. Most of them were deluded. Most of us relying on what comes natural to us, at best, listen just enough to be able to form an instruction or correction to what people are telling us. Or we listen just enough to be able to hijack their story to tell a story from our life that we think will show we understand what they’re going through. Neither one of those feels very satisfying for someone looking for connection in a difficult time. It takes great restraint and some skill to be able to accurately reflect back to a person what we hear them saying. And most people just don’t do it.
Henry Cloud and John Townsend wrote the seminal book on Boundaries. It turns out that not only are most of us born without a firm grasp on what makes for good relational boundaries, but most of us have had early life experiences that have confused the issue of boundaries. If you’ve ever had someone tell you how you should think or feel, make decisions for you that were yours to make, entered your emotional or physical space without permission and told you it was love, you’re going to be confused about healthy boundaries. Reading and learning about boundaries and, better yet, reading a book with friends you can discuss your ideas with is very helpful. You’ll know where the quicksand of someone’s drama ends and where the firm ground of your responsibility to people begins. You’d be able to draw close enough to extend your caring and your wisdom through a conversation that’s heavy with listening.
So to all you kind, merciful people out there—care, but beware the quicksand.
Photo (Flickr CC) by david