How to be a Hero to the Long-Suffering

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\"SusanEverybody loves a story with a hero’s victorious ending.  Folks rally around watching with sustained interest dramatic battles between good guys and bad guys, or the patient battling an illness laying claim on his body, or the underdog standing up to a corrupt entity.  We love it when, after the blood, sweat, and tears, justice is served and good prevails.  We live vicariously through the hero, feeling triumphant interiorly – although we did nothing more than watch a movie or read a book.  We identify with the hero precisely because we all struggle against evils in our lives, and it is right that we should wish to prevail over them. We make the hero our own because we want to rise victorious, too.

Reality, however, will find the sufferer standing mostly alone.  Folks evaporate into thin air when the going gets tough.  When the suffering is real and especially if it is a prolonged crisis, there are a blessed few who will stay the course alongside the suffering individual, no matter how bravely he battles for his cause.  Hence the deep meaning of the verse, “He that is a friend loveth at all times: and a brother is proved in distress” Proverbs 17:17.

It’s no surprise that supporters are hard to come by for the long term crisis.  Everybody has their own battles to contend with, after all, and cannot possibly give all the support necessary to those in a long term crisis, precisely because of the chronic nature of the battle.  It is distressing to see the poor in their poverty, the sick in their illness, the hyper-vigilant in their worried brow and spinning thoughts, the mourners in their sorrow.  Yet, not all are suffering the intense heavy crosses of some.

There are a significant percentage of people who are living day to day in survival mode, in unthinkable and unimaginable difficulties.   Some are permanently disabled, some are dying slow deaths, some are deeply depressed, and some are victims of abuse and torture.  No matter the particular situation, the purpose of this article is to create awareness and understanding of those in long-term crisis.

Usually when there is a short term need, folks will supply the need for meals, housecleaning, or babysitting until the crisis begins to settle, and those suffering can stand on their own two feet again.  Sadly, however, when a crisis drags on week after week, month after month, and even year after year, the novelty wears off and supporters disappear – rightly or wrongly – leaving the sufferer alone.  This is doubly devastating to the sufferer, since their battle has not ended, and they still need the support of others.

Some explanation of what the long-suffering person is experiencing will prove helpful to those who wish to assist him, since it can be impossible to understand without ever having experienced such a crisis. This will be coupled with some advice in dealing with him.  This role of supporter is not for the faint of heart, and is best fulfilled by a few dedicated individuals rather than just one person.  .  “I have showed you all things, how that so laboring you ought to support the weak and to remember the word of the Lord Jesus, how he said: It is a more blessed thing to give, rather than to receive” Acts 20:35.

Firstly, reject any and all preconceived notions you may have of what the sufferer ought to be doing.  Until and unless you know them intimately enough to understand every food item and allergy, every dollar and debt, every doctor and lab test, every court case and legal action, every background story and relationship, every conversation and threat, and every heartfelt fear, you do not know enough to judge this person.  Period.  Either leap in selflessly and help, withholding judgments, or stay away.  Let God be the judge of the man in need.  If you’re in doubt of his sincerity or need, either take the time to get to know him and see for yourself, or stay away.  Ask for clarifications if necessary.  Do not further injure the sufferer by presumptions, inaccurate piecing of information, belief in hearsay, and the like. Never blame the sufferer for his situation.  He needs a friend – several, really, so that no one person is exhausted by single-handedly supporting him.

Secondly, accept the fact that the long-sufferer has likely been on his own for awhile and as a result, has developed some unconventional ways of coping and handling. These contribute to his ability to feel some degree of aptitude and success in surviving. He may seem to be uncooperative or resistant, but really, he is only afraid.  To him, more change means more instability, and God knows he has had enough of that.  His routines and apparent independence in the light of total helplessness looks like an oxymoron, but it’s understandable.  Unless these are really detrimental coping mechanisms, allow him to keep them for now.  As he recovers, he will be more receptive to standardized ways of dealing with things.  Consider that he probably understands his situation with such great detail that his “unconventional” methods may in fact be the best methods.    With all he has been through, he may not even seem like a good friend back to you.  Don’t be daunted; the long sufferer needs friends, and he will hopefully heal with time and assistance.

Thirdly, don’t presume the sufferer will ask for help if he needs any.  The perpetual taxing of mind, heart, and soul which is co morbid with long term suffering frequently causes short term memory loss, confusion, inability to make decisions, poor decision making, heightened emotional sensitivity, depression, and sleeplessness.  (A few nights without sleep disrupt the cognitive abilities of people who are not in crisis situations; in those long suffering persons, the effects are greater and more damaging, not only biologically, but also because of the natural consequences of mistakes made as a result of the above effects.) Therefore, although much help may be needed, the sufferer may not be able to formulate requests.  He may be afraid to presume upon your generosity, or afraid of offending or rejection.  Try to anticipate his needs, and realize the most basic things are probably wanting.  Be proactive, thoughtful, and sympathetic by offering specific helps.  “When is your mortgage and electric due? Do you have enough to pay them?”, “When can I pick up your laundry to wash for you?” and “I’m bringing supper for tonight.  Would you like chicken or lasagna?” are good sample questions which do not require the sufferer to think too hard.  Don’t laugh, it’s true.  Multiple choice questions with few possible answers are easiest.   Single statements such as, “I’ll drive you both to the hospital on Monday so you can sit in the backseat with your son and comfort him” are also a great way to help.

Fourthly, be morally supportive.   That comes in many forms, from genuine compliments to optimistic exclamations and positive actions. Provide him with a CD of his favorite music, or a magazine of his interests.  Help him overcome the continuous onslaught of stress with something beautiful, amazing, or interesting.  Nourish his imagination and his heart, rekindle his dreams.  It takes time to see success, but every exposure to moral support builds upon the previous action, and the cumulative effect is the creation or awakening of a place inside himself where the sufferer can find a little escape, a little solace, and a little hope.   Also, offer to pray with him, but most of all, pray for him.  Pray that he will find relief from his suffering, or renewed strength and hope in the face of suffering.

The greatest story with a hero’s victorious ending is that of our risen Lord, Jesus Christ.  His via dolorosa and crucifixion found so few near Him in stark contrast to the crowds who followed Him during his public ministry.  Let us recall our duty of charity to our fellow man, and extend a helping hand to those who are suffering a long term crisis.  In the words of Mother Teresa of Calcutta, let us “see the face of Jesus in the distressing disguise of the poor.”  Let’s get out of our comfort zones.  Let’s stop watching and reading from our comfy positions, and take on a role in the reality of another’s battle against his evil.  Where we exercise charity, we overcome evil, and then we really are heroes.  \”Be not overcome by evil, but overcome evil by good\” Romans 12:21.

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11 thoughts on “How to be a Hero to the Long-Suffering”

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  2. Excellent. Not sugar coated or hyper spiritual. I have plenty of distressing stories of “friends” after all these years of caring for children with cystic fibrosis. And I mean people I go to church with, who stand outside abortion clinics or write pithy posts on Catholicism or donate to hip charities but don’t lift a finger or dollar for people they actually know. I don’t think Christians like chronic problems (love of beautiful perfection, you know); they like the short-term, as you wrote, and the gushy thanks when all is well and beautiful again. We are a little more thick-skinned now, meaning that we don’t weep and wonder and wring our hands; we just know that most people do not care.

    1. Amen, Allison, Amen!!!! At least, as extreme caregivers, we can die knowing that we have lived a worthy life….that counts for something!

    2. Agreed! It’s much easier to go to the soup kitchen, or a mission trip, or send a check through the mail, than it is to help the person standing in front of you. (Who more is a “neighbor”?) I’m amazed at how little people (Catholics) do for others; how quickly they retreat. And if I dare say this out loud I am told I expect too much, while at the same time being told not to change my ways. Well, if I’m one of the few striving members of the sodality of kindness, so be it. (I’ve been on both ends of this: the one needing longterm help, and the one giving it. This article hits the nail on the head and I appreciate so much that it has been written).

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  4. This is a wonderful article Susan Anne! One of the best I have read. Thank you for showing us how we can minister to those who suffer, and that we need to! Your advice is insightful and practical. God bless.

  5. From my experience as a caregiver to my son who is 28 (16 years post a non-fatal drowning…25 minutes without oxygen at a summer camp) there is an added dimension missing here. He is non-mobile, spastic, non-verbal, but totally pure and lovable. It took one year (and that’s a stretch) for all his friends, our friends and all our relatives including our parents to disappear…they were avowed good Catholics.
    People pretend that we do not exist because they are fundamentally uncomfortable around the severely disabled, those supported by technology with contorted bodies. My son is an abstraction, not fully human to them and frankly, they do not care…they have to continue with their lives. We (wife and I) have never had a night way together in 16 years…without our intimate knowledge of his body he would die in an institution in no time fast….there are no good facilities. And never suggest that the “long sufferers” ask…universally the answer is a direct no or a subtle evasion. My advice comes from my son who communicate this to our clairvoyant of the past 15 years….”Love means being there, even when you don’t have to.” Simple…being there. Advice to the former friends…never promise what you will not deliver. In the first year, I heard often “We’ll be there for you for however long it takes.” A promise offers hope, a broken promise offer betrayal.
    Be there, regularly…nothing else is better. It is a hard life but a worthy life … it is never fearful to die living a worthy life. I protest God who would allow suffering to happen, as suffering has no intrinsic value….alleviating suffering has value. Treating people who suffer as abstractions is not particular to any religion, it is endemic to humanity….this species does not take care of it’s own. I can never accept a God who allows little children to suffer and die each day. He needs to step up to the plate also…..

    1. Phil,
      I can’t even imagine what you and your wife are going through, and I won’t pretend to know why your family has to endure this kind of pain. I would only hope that in time your position about God can soften. Through personal experience and spiritual guidance I learned that God never inflicts suffering on us. He is not some type of malicious or capricious Being that likes to see us suffer, or who inflicts hardship on us at random. God is pure love, it would be against His nature to turn away from us in any way. There is suffering in the world because the Earth is not a perfect place … it’s not heaven. There is disease, disability, accidents and acts of sheer evil inflicted on man by his fellow man. Much of the pain is caused by sin, but certainly not all. A lot of suffering is accidental, like in your son’s case. To blame God for our pain is misplaced anger. God is never the cause of our suffering but He does give us the strength to get through it , if we trust Him. If God wasn’t all loving, why would Jesus have spent so much of His ministry healing the sick? And what would be the point of praying to God for healing if He was the one who afflicted us in the first place? Maybe suffering is the ultimate test of our faith… do we turn away from God, like the devil would love for us to do, or do we trust in God to give us strength and ultimately triumph over adversity? There is a deep peace that comes with trust in God. I will be praying for your family.

    2. Well, you are right to a degree…God does not inflict suffering, but he allows it. God does not decree that 1.5 million children die each year of starvation, He allows it to happen without intervention. God does not cause 1 in 4 woman to be sexually assaulted in their lives and 1 in 10 boys, He does not intervene in this evil. God does not cause thousands of human women to be trafficed each year, but HE does not intervene. I could go on….There is no one healing this plethora of injustice which is mostly inflicted on children. I do not need prayer…what would that really change? I need people to treat my son as a full human being and a full person, not an abstraction. I need people to affirm his worth as a living being with full dignity. I need all churches to be handicapped accessible with wheelchair ramps, pew cut out, ASL translators … will prayer get my son dignity? This is the age old problem of theodicy…..

    3. I don’t know why God doesn’t intervene in every horrid situation, as I only have limited human understanding. It will all unfold at the end of time. I do know that without faith, I have nothing… so I try to trust that Jesus’ words are true. If you don’t mind, I would like to pray that God does intervene somehow in your life – maybe by awakening the conscience and compassion of your family and friends who have abandoned your son. I wish you peace.

  6. Thank you for the practical wisdom of your article. At times it can feel overwhelming when you think of how many people really need our help. It doesn’t have to be some magnificent action, if we only did one small loving gesture, that would be better than having great intentions but doing nothing. Thank you for the reminder.

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