How do you handle someone who feels slighted because their perspective of a situation is off target?
From time to time I’ll be asked something like “why don’t women have the priesthood?” or “how could God let that happen?” Even though I know answers to many of these questions, I never can seem to answer them.
Two characteristics define this class of questions. First, the asker has both an intellectual lack of knowledge on the topic and an emotional wound caused by that lack of knowledge. An answer that ignores that wound is insufficient. Second, the questions themselves stem from an incorrect assumption that is not evident in the question itself.
I do know of three ways of answering these questions—three ways which I can’t seem to make work in practice. I outline them below, in hopes they may be of some use to someone.
The first approach is to try to answer the intellectual concern directly. This means telling people that their assumptions are wrong, which can feel emotionally like insulting their intelligence or telling them that their questions is invalid. Since the wound is a real wound and is attached to the question, this makes the response feel like an attack on their right to be hurt. Until you can soothe the wound, defensive instincts make the question almost impossible to address. But until the question is addressed, the wound is continually re-asserting itself.
“You hit me!”
“You misunderstand; if you had the right mindset my fist wouldn’t hurt you.”
“Can’t you just stop hitting me?”
“No, that actually would hurt you, even though you might not feel it.”
In an earlier draft of this post I had included a few concrete examples, but I then realized that for people who had those example problems the examples, even as sanitized as I could make them, would themselves be hurtful. Frankly, I don’t know of any way to make this approach work.
Several years ago I penned a poem, “Job and I”, which contains these lines:
“When He gave wealth,” he said to me, “I took it merrily;
He gives now pain; and who can judge betwixt the Lord and me?
He is so good, so wise, so true, that though His blessing hurts
I have no room to argue that these aren’t my just deserts.
He hates me; does that justify my hating Him in turn?
He is my God; He’s free to kill me if ’twill help me learn.”
In my life I have found that I can guarantee two things. First, there always will be some problem I have with the Truth. Like Abraham being asked to kill his son, like Job having everything removed without cause or explanation, like parents confused at the death of their children, I don’t get what God’s getting at. The second is that, if I accept it anyway, if I say “it looks like God messed up this one, but I know He’s still good so I’ll give Him the benefit of the doubt” and then move on with my life in faith, then eventually I change. I develop “eyes to see and ears to hear” and that one problem goes away. Two examples of this change in perspective are found in the most recent General Conference: Hugh B. Brown and the current bush and an illness from a doctor. It isn’t answered, per se, but rather the question itself becomes invalidated by an increased understanding of context and circumstances.
But I haven’t found a way to share this idea with those offended either. How do you tell someone that you can’t yet explain it to them but that eventually you will be able to, about the same time they no longer need an explanation?
“Ouch! Quit hitting me!”
“Just roll with it. Eventually you’ll be smart enough to understand why it’s a good thing.”
I’m not much for Zen generally, but there is one concept that I find they have captured very well. The zen master Joshu is rumored to have encapsulated it in a single word, “mu”. “Mu” is a complicated concept in Zen, but as a rough approximation it is used to un-ask questions. “Let it go. Thinking about that question is not going to help you on the path. To attempt to answer is to accept a false assumption.”
I love the idea of “mu” and use it often in my own thinking, but I never use it with others. It is far too easy to mistake “mu” for the much more pernicious “it’s a mystery of god”. I have never been easy in my mind that Zen uses “mu” to mean what I suggest here it means. Perhaps they do want to have people resigned to the idea that all questions are eternally unanswerable. I hope not. Both are designed to un-ask the question, but the latter does so by forbidding thought and labeling the answer as unattainable, while the former suggests (to me) that the approach being taken is not a path that leads to the summit of understanding so a different path ought to be sought.
Un-asking questions is an important key to many things I do. For example, I use it all the time in research; I step back, challenge the assumptions, and try to ask a different question. But I have never found a good way to convey that there, either.
“Why are you hurting me?”
“Maybe that’s the wrong question to be asking.”
“But it hurts. Stop it!”
“Maybe it doesn’t hurt. Can you think of another way of looking at it?”
So what, then, is to be done when someone approaches you with an issue that has hurt them? The best course I have found is to express empathy at their hurt, assure them no offense was intended, and express confidence that they will find the solution themselves. It doesn’t answer the question, but at least it doesn’t twist the knife in the wound.