The following is something between a sermon and a chapter in a book. I’m breaking it up into three easy pieces so you don’t feel like you have to read too much in one sitting. I’m planning to take on more “worn out words and feeble phrases” in future sermons—I mean three-part blogs.
“Is there anything I can do?” I have to admit, I have heard this question a lot. I have to confess, I have also asked this question a lot.
If you have been through… uh… some stuff, or if you have friends who have been through some stuff, the chances are pretty high that you, too, have heard it and/or asked it. As people suffer, there is an ever-growing list of words and phrases that run a range of being rather meaningless to downright callous and hurtful. “Is there anything I can do?” has to be one of the most overused of those things we say and ranks highly as one that might also be very close to meaningless.
Yes, that is harsh language and plenty of folks will be offended by it. We all should feel offended that our offers to help someone would be considered meaningless. The question, though, has been used too much by people who ask but end up doing nothing. It’s not that the proposition was insincere in the first place, but somehow it became a hollow salutation we attach to brief moments we spend with people who are in pain. It would be better that we extend the moments without giving into the temptation that we have to say something.
Think about visitations at the funeral home. The tradition is already awkward at best. A grieving widow stands in her spot near her dead husband’s casket while many friends from her community file by to offer their condolences. How many of those folks concluded their short visit to pay their respects by signing off with, “If there’s anything I can do for you, don’t hesitate to ask, OK?” Politely, the widow nods and says thank you. She greets the next caring neighbor and probably goes through the same process with him. And on and on it goes. Meanwhile, the previous itinerant mourners are on their way to Waffle House to cap their experience with carbohydrates and hot coffee where they’ll probably render another deep sentiment, “Bless her heart.”
To those who ask, thanks for asking. More than likely, you are caring and sincere. You ask, “Is there anything I can do?” and you really do mean it. That’s good. It really is. Ask it, and act on it.
With that disclaimer out of the way, though, there has to be a way to do this better. The question can be a problem and here are a few reasons.
It’s a tired turn of phrase.
Because of over-use, “Is there anything I can do?” has become one among many meaningless phrases which we unconsciously employ in games of conversational ping pong. It ranks up there with “How are you doing?” and its equally empty reply of “I’m fine.” These feeble phrases and worn out words actually debuted as genuine expressions of concern, so for those who still mean what they say, it’s up to you to reclaim them from the cedar-lined hope chests of colloquialism.
Chances are good that if we think about what we say, we might actually get back to meaning what we say. Think about this. Our modern word “goodbye” is an abbreviation for “God be with you.” The sentiment has certainly evolved over time. It’s easy enough to imagine nowadays that you might say “goodbye” to someone you would only give some credit for the first syllable of “hello” that you’re going through.
It’s a burdensome phrase.
Even when sincerely asked, “Is there anything I can do?” moves the responsibility for its answer to the other person. Once asked, it’s up to somebody else whether they will take what you have asked and bat that proverbial ball back into your court. It seems cruel, to me, to ask someone who is suffering to then do the work of coming up with an answer to our question.
When you are going through difficult times in your life, the farthest thing from your mind has to be jotting down a quick to-do list to refer to should some thoughtful volunteer show up who needs an assignment.
It’s a conversation ender.
It is likely that “Is there anything I can do?” has been employed too often as the polite way to close a conversation with someone who is hurting. Just like “How are you doing?” anticipates “Fine”, we ask “Is there anything I can do?” as the prelude of our polite dismissal, “Thank you.” Instead of asking this ancient question out of genuine concern, it has become our handy tool to get us out of the room. If we have been listening in a conversation only for the opportunity to then ask “Is there anything I can do?” then we were never present in the room in the first place. It got awkward and we wished we were somewhere else so we left, then we went back only to rescue our own bodies.
I imagine that many other difficulties could be added to the problems I have already mentioned. One point I am trying to make is that we are desperate to resurrect the practice of thinking before we speak, especially in situations where we care for friends who are in pain or are suffering. Think about what you say. Think about how that person might hear what you say.
Don’t be afraid to say something, but please don’t offer it if the sentiment does not come from your heart.
I have been fortunate to receive some wisdom along the way. I lamented to a friend once as I was on the way to a funeral that I did not know what to say to this grieving family whose father died unexpectedly. This young minister turned to me and said, “Bo, sometimes all you can do is hug people’s neck and tell ‘em you love ‘em.”
If you’re willing to love people, your showing up at difficult times probably confirms what they already know. Your saying so might be more of something you need to hear than they do. For me, the unimaginable has then taken place. I have received back a deeply tear-stained, red-nosed “I love you, too” that has penetrated my soul. Each time it has been an important gift that I didn’t know I needed—but I really did.