I don’t know what to say…

by +CrystalThieringer    @cdthieringer


I’m struggling to find balance.

Once upon a time when I was ill and quite isolated,  the most common thing I heard from family and friends was, “I would have called but I didn’t want to wake you up.” Though true, I think sometimes it also meant, “I would have called but I didn’t know what to say.” It resulted in long periods when I didn’t see or hear from anyone, and it was lonely. It was sometimes very, very lonely.

Later, as online chat became something I could engage in, I loved social media because it allowed me to not be the sick person unless I chose to reveal that information. I could enter into a conversation with people that was about things other than how I was feeling. Further, if I happened to be awake at 2:00 a.m., there was a good chance someone, somewhere was too. For an hour or so, I could be “normal.” It was no small thing.

These days? I don’t know what to say. I’m overwhelmed by the use of social media to talk about war and rumours of war, and there aren’t enough cute kitten pictures in the world to quell that for me. I don’t know what to do, and I struggle with empathy fatigue. I feel it, and I don’t want to.

Do you?

I especially hate it when it crosses over into my every day life. As much as I am loving this Christmas season–and I am, so much–I am also feeling guilty for loving it. I shouldn’t because I’ve had a couple of very difficult Christmases. This isn’t one of those, it is a season of calm and joy for me. It is not that way, however, for people I care about. A close friend is celebrating the life of her father today, and another close friend is saying similar farewells to someone dear to him. Other friends are experiencing life changes that bring about their own particular challenges to this Christmas.

Grief has laid claim to Advent. It always does, it seems, and perhaps it is this knowledge of grief that makes this time of hope for peace so special.

Last week, a woman politely declined an offer of cookies because she is observing a religious fast. She smiled at my fumbling of her observance. Then, with pain in her eyes, she whispered, “you know, the bombing in Egypt?” I deflected the conversation because–well, I don’t have a good reason, to be honest. I don’t know how to fix it, and I wish I did. Perhaps then, it isn’t a case of empathy fatigue, but a case of being overwhelmed and not knowing where to place my efforts. Her beautiful, kind face now represents the persecuted to me. She has been directly affected by that event, and I feel the weight of her sorrow.

Is it such an impossible thing to pray for peace, to hope for it, to seek joy, to cultivate a life that is tranquil in spite of everything that seems determined to quash it?

Yesterday, we baked new cookies to offer to the woman. After researching what we could about her faith, we chose a recipe we hoped would fit within the confines of her fast. This morning I took them to her, with a letter apologizing for minimizing her pain. I wrote it down because I didn’t want to bumble it again.

“Oh, thank you” she said, “Merry Christmas.”

I hesitated, and then said. “It is for Christmas. And it’s for more than Christmas. I hope you’ll understand.”

I left her to read my note in privacy. Later, she reached out and trembling, held my hands. “Thank you,” she whispered. The tears in her eyes brought tears to mine.

Perhaps I can not solve Aleppo or Egypt or even some things much closer to my own circle of influence. I can’t remove my friends’ grief. But this I can do:  listen, seek understanding, and offer friendship here in my community, with my people.

I still don’t know what to say. Quite possibly, that’s the point.

16 thoughts on “I don’t know what to say…

  1. I love the ending thought, ” … that’s the point.” Yes – we are ill equipped to KNOW what to say in the face of things that are unspeakable. Words cannot touch those deep places. It’s just the truth. Thank you for your transparency, and ability to share your journey.

    1. Words are inadequate often, aren’t they? There are, however, things I can–both here, in my community, and to a lesser extent, far away. I don’t mean to minimize that either, but sometimes I feel the need to do something tangible here. Thanks for stopping by!

    2. And I suspect that speaking into the face of things unspeakable is probably unseemly, anyway. Sometimes the right answer isn’t an answer at all, is respectful silence. And the Spirit intercedes for us when we don’t know what to say. Sometimes there’s nothing TO say, just the need to feel.

  2. I am so glad you are having a season of joy and peace. You must be a beacon of hope to many in your circle. Empathy fatigue is a good way to describe what many are experiencing right now. I hope I will be braver, and call on friends who are suffering, so they don’t experience the loneliness you did.

    1. It does take a certain amount of courage–but also, a certain amount of grace. We don’t have to know what to say. Sometimes, we just have to show up and admit we have no answers.

  3. My dear Crystal, what a blessing you are. This post, all of it, is balm for my sad, overwhelmed, overburdened heart. You’ve identified precisely my struggle for the past two months.

    These days? I don’t know what to say. I’m overwhelmed by the use of social media to talk about war and rumours of war, and there aren’t enough cute kitten pictures in the world to quell that for me. I don’t know what to do, and I struggle with empathy fatigue.

    I’ve pulled away from social media lately, because I want to heal everything–and I cannot. I’ve intentionally focused on the things I can change, in real life, right in front of me. That is, individual twelve-year-olds in my class. Our curriculum is styled so that I work one-on-one with them (Math and English, always), giving me many opportunities to encourage and affirm them. That’s my job, building young people up in what is certainly one of the worst years of their lives. 🙂

    I don’t have ’empathy fatigue’ in real life, and it shouldn’t keep me from social media. Thank you for sharing your struggle and helping me to realize the nature of mine. You’ve helped me so much today. Thank you does not sound adequate.

    1. What you’ve said is more than adequate, Laura, and very encouraging to me. How wonderful for the young people in your life that they have someone so invested in them. Our world is lost without such teachers.

    2. I resonated with exactly the same paragraph. And I resonate with your comment, too, about not having empathy fatigue in real life, with the kids in front of me in the classroom.

  4. What I like about this piece is that it invites a conversation. I must admit this is not a joyous Christmas for me — it’s the first Christmas since my dad died, and with the world being the way it is, it’s a struggle to feel the hope of the season. On the other hand, certain traditions are more comforting than ever — the hanging of the greens at church, the singing of the old hymns, the gospel readings. You did something so beautiful in making those cookies for your friend. Maybe that’s the way it works — reaching out to one person at a time, doing what we can in our corner of the world, and trusting God to do the rest. I have many more questions than answers this year. Thank you for this, dear Crystal.

    1. My sweet friend, how you must miss your Dad. Every picture of him showed a man with a gentle and somewhat mischievous smile. I’ve learned from you how involved he was in the world, fighting for social justice, for kindness, for peace–much like you do. Yes, there are always questions, but isn’t this the season for them? May your heart be blessed by these traditions, may they bring you comfort in their familiarity, and may you find answers to your seeking. I am praying for you.

  5. As the priest said at my father’s funeral yesterday, it is a season to examine our readiness to accept gifts in our lives. We may not be able to find the joyful anticipation felt by some. But that doesn’t mean we have to shut out the love around us. Keeping our hearts open to love is the important task we must try to do. Your love is appreciated.

    1. “A season to examine our readiness to accept gifts…” I like that. I am humbled by the profound loss your family is experiencing right now, Denise. Your dad seems like a man who lived the breadth of his life, and who has taught you to do the same. I’ll never see a bowtie without thinking of him–and you. Love to you, my friend.

  6. This is one of those difficult Christmases for me. If it were one arrow I could try and dodge it, but it feels like one after another. Still missing sweet Olivia who we did have last Christmas. Just need to be still and worship at the manger. I appreciated your sensitive post. Thank you.

    1. You have had many arrows this year–Miss Olivia, illness, one challenge after another, I know. None have been simple. It is a Job year. I’m sorry–and I’m praying.

  7. Yes, the empathy fatigue. Yes, I don’t know what to say, and yes to the simple gestures like your cookie gift (the gift was much more than cookies). I agree with others that you have perfectly stated what so many are feeling this holiday season. Merry Christmas to you and yours.

  8. This: “These days? I don’t know what to say. I’m overwhelmed by the use of social media to talk about war and rumours of war, and there aren’t enough cute kitten pictures in the world to quell that for me. I don’t know what to do, and I struggle with empathy fatigue. I feel it, and I don’t want to.”

    And this: “Grief has laid claim to Advent. It always does….”

    I can’t solve anything. I can’t say anything that will help. But I can do the small and insignificant things that present themselves to me to do, and I can fist-bump a kid or hug a friend, and it’s never enough, and it’s okay. I don’t know what to say, either. I know what to shriek into my pillow by way of venting, but then that gets exhausting, too.

    I don’t know what to say either. Obviously. LOL.

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