When I was little I told my mom I felt melancholy. This amused her partly because the word I used had more letters than I had candles on my birthday cake. Also, I mispronounced it using the ch-sound instead of leaving the H silent, the way I would have had I been talking about a cute little collie instead of a sad emotion. Whoever came up with the correct pronunciation should have probably considered the imagery the word invokes – at least to a little girl who happened to love dogs.
Words have incredible power to hurt, comfort, entertain, enrage and enlighten us. Yet, they don’t mean much if they never get expressed. It’s like a child in the womb who holds the promise of life, but is never born. The silence of that void is not ever heard in the noise of our world, and as such, we will never really know how that alters our existence.
So it is, when we are stingy with our words of praise, thanksgiving and comfort. We leave untouched an opportunity to make someone’s life better – even for a moment, and sometimes it’s the moment that is hardest to get through.
Recently, someone had apologized to me for not talking to me at an event we were both at. I didn’t talk to her either, so she had nothing to apologize for and there were many people at the occasion that I knew but did not speak to and vice-versa. It was one of those parental obligations we had to attend, and most of us only talked with people in our vicinity. There was no social faux-pas on her part, or hurt feelings on mine.
Still, I was ashamed that she apologized to me when I was the one who needed to tell her that I was sorry.
You see, she has cancer, and I had yet to acknowledge this. Since I found out from someone else, I wasn’t sure if she was keeping her illness private so I kept quiet.
In retrospect, that sounds like a lame excuse. She isn’t the first peer I’ve known to have been diagnosed with this dreadful disease, and with the others I sent meals, cards and prayers.
While I was praying for this person, I pretended not to know anything was different about her life. I put her privacy, which I truly respected, above her person who deserved more than my seeming indifference.
So as she apologized to me, she explained how she didn’t speak to me that day because she was in so much pain from surgery and was putting all her energy into standing upright and smiling for a picture with her child.
I didn’t know she was in terrible pain when we saw one another, nor that she was recovering from surgery or that she had another operation to get through. I did know she had cancer though, and more importantly now I realized that she knew I did.
Suddenly the whole respecting her privacy notion seemed preposterous when I had wasted time that could have been used to ease her suffering.
I felt more than melancholy when I walked away from our conversation, I felt like a gnat’s dung – miniscule and vile. Here she was living a nightmare, and I was worried about whether or not I was supposed to know.
I put social graces before the gestures of kindness and compassion. My words failed me, not because I said the wrong thing – but, because I said nothing at all.
I didn’t use words to express my sincere sorrow for her suffering, or my hope that she would be okay. I didn’t use my words to tell her all the ways I could help — with meals, errands or companionship.
I said nothing, and she was apologizing to me.
I went home and wrote her a letter, and told her with every word I knew to use how sorry I was for the cancer, her pain and my silence. I told her how embarrassed I was that I had not acknowledged what she was going through. I told her everything I should have said when I first found out, along with a sincere apology for not saying it sooner.
We are all called to comfort others, no matter the source of their sorrow. It doesn’t matter if you say the right thing, use the wrong word, or even pronounce it incorrectly. It matters that you say something.
We may perceive ourselves as being inept when it comes to comforting the sorrowful. After all, there are some losses and tragedies which defy the profoundest of words. Still, we must remember the times in our lives when a family member, friend, or even a stranger shared some kind words with us, that in their essence were quite ordinary but because they were made with the intention of love, they somehow are transformed from mere words to tiny miracles of comfort and healing.
“I myself am convinced my brothers, that you yourselves are full of goodness, complete in knowledge and competent to instruct one another,” Romans 15:14.
Ultimately, words spoken with love become a soothing melody to the melancholic heart. Now it’s just up to us to make sure they are said.Please share your comments, insights and experiences. It’s hard to know sometimes not only what to say, but if you should say anything at all.