When words are not enough

I gave some thought to how to introduce this posting before coming up with the title I have, realising these words are often used to express gratitude, appreciation and love to someone who has done or been something outstanding. I wanted to reflect on a re-occurring theme in my community activism and something that touches upon what I have been seeking to do by going “Outside the Camp” (the title of the book which tells some of my story in becoming the community activist that I am). It seemed to me, having reflected, “when words are not enough” encapsulated what I wanted to say.

The fact of the matter is that on a regular basis I come across situations involving people facing things that are problematic and perplexing, with no clear solution, and when words are not enough when trying to find ways to resolve these situations. The broad scenario these stories have in common is I encounter someone, maybe for the first time, who is going through a difficult time. They tell me their story (or usually, to be more precise, edited highlights) and I try to listen empathetically. But at the end, while I can sometimes help, I often find myself in a quandary as how best I am to respond, not wanting to offer pious platitudes, make promises I can’t keep or worse still find myself giving inappropriate advice that might create further difficulties. I then ask myself what I can do to help or say to those persons, what they could or should do to help themselves, and often draw a blank, realising words are not enough!

Last night, going out with Street Spirit, which these days I do most Saturday nights in trying to practically help homeless people, I spoke to two persons who weren’t even homeless (in fact there were many others I spoke with but these two stood out) who told me something of their story and current predicament. In both cases, I realised in responding, while I could be empathetic, offer limited words of wisdom and pray for them (which I did) that the bottom line was that words were not enough. I could easily rationalise the situation, consoling myself that others before me will know their story, there are agencies around that are supposed to help (even though sadly they often fall short as became apparent in the two stories), I have enough on my plate dealing with my own problems.

But then again, words are not enough and to use another popular saying: actions speak louder than words. I have no doubt that the “system” is broken, there appears little point putting our hope in politicians, irrespective of their party, and the world is full of fools and villains doing these folk down, although on a bright note, there are many who do care. But as for my response to these people, this gets formulated as my computer brain goes into rapid overdrive working out what it should be. At the end of that calculation, more often than not I end up admitting that I do not have the solution. I will try to empathise, help practically if it is appropriate and in my power to do so and, if there are words of wisdom and given I know more than most what agencies are out there and what they can and can’t do, share that information and try to make the necessary links.

If anything, what this illustrates is that while it may be tempting to withdraw to our own comfortable cocoons (as many do, all too often denying there is a real issue), and sometimes we need to do that to keep sane and avoid burn out anyway, there is plenty outside our comfort zones where our being out there can help make that much needed difference. While it may not always seem like that at the time, the little we do can be very significant, as those who benefit will often testify, maybe a long time after it happened. What is also evident, while we may be able to our little bit, we can’t do it all by ourselves and need to solicit the help of and to join with others in seeking creative ways to address “impossible” situations.

But it all comes back to the title – when words are not enough!

God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change; courage to change the things I can; and wisdom to know the difference” – Reinhold Niebuhr


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