I got this picture from her via text. Or maybe it was on Pinterest and we just started texting about it. Anyway, the point is that we both had the picture. And we laughed. We laughed hard. We laughed until there were tears. And "Phteven" became a mantra.
What do you say when you don't know what to say? Phteven.
Rude lady at Target? Phteven.
The kids have mysteriously shed all their clothing and are running around the house acting like rabid howler monkeys and it's only 11:30am? Phteven.
You miscalculated and overdrew the bank account and now there's no money until next week and the car is on empty and the only food in the fridge is a tiny bit of milk, a questionable hunk of cheese, and some mustard? PHTEVEN!
Poor Phteven with his unfortunate overbite and fantastic bow-tie has gotten us laughing in situations where we really just wanted to curl up in the fetal position with a bag of cookies and a margarita the size of a birdbath.
But Phteven also got me thinking. About what to say when you don't know what to say. And I know a thing or two about this because I have been in a few situations where people just didn't know what to say.
My husband and I suffered through miscarriages and several years of infertility.
My family spent about 18 months weathering one tragedy after another. Seriously. Total chaos. I'm pretty sure people thought I was making things up to get attention. I wasn't.
My husband and I have had major financial difficulties for an extended period of time. Every time there was a light at the end of the tunnel it turned out to be a train. We spent 6 months on food stamps. Our son is on government insurance. We finally declared bankruptcy, surrendered our house to the bank, and downsized dramatically. (There! I said it! In public!) We are currently rebuilding our finances from the ground up.
We've had severe marriage problems.
The child that we begged God for over a period of about 8 years has turned out to have a very unique temperament that has required us to make some tough sacrifices in our social life to help him thrive. (Not that I regret or resent those sacrifices, but they were still hard.)
I know how it feels to be isolated. I know how it feels to be the one asking for prayers so often that you finally stop asking because it dawns on you that people just might not care anymore. I know how it feels to have to smile and nod through advice from well-meaning people who have never walked one single day in shoes that even resemble yours. And I know how it feels to receive judgement from eyes and words and body language. I still carry that judgement around with me every single day.
But occasionally during those really rough times someone would ask me how I was doing and I knew they genuinely wanted to know. So I told them the ugly truth. And most of those times their response was very simple.
"I'm so sorry you're struggling. What can I pray for specifically?"
"Wow. That's big stuff. But you're doing a great job and I'm proud of you."
"I wish I had answers for you, but really all I have is the ability to love and pray you through this."
See, most of the time - and maybe I'm the exception to the rule here but I doubt it - I'm not asking someone to fix it. Because if it could be fixed I would've done it already. And I'm not asking for advice. Because I've spent hours pouring over forums and blogs and books and have realized that there is no simple answer and I'm just going to have to wait it out. And I've heard every platitude and cliche you can possibly throw at me.
What I need is support. Unconditional support. Consistent support. What I need to know is that wherever I am today emotionally is okay as long as my eyes are on God. What I need to know is that you see me. That you see my struggle and you know I'm fighting and that you'll fight with me if I need you to, but you'll also be there to cheer me on if it's a fight I have to do on my own. And I need it to be okay if my fight lasts longer than you think it should.
Don't give advice unless it's requested. Don't say "God has a plan". Don't tell me that "What doesn't kill you makes you stronger". Don't (DO NOT!) say that "God won't give you more than you can handle." (I won't rant about this one today. Besides, this blog post says it better than I ever could.) Don't get your feelings hurt if you ask what you can do and I say "nothing" because there really genuinely might not be anything you can do.
Sometimes we have to walk roads that are dark and lonely.
And we all walk those roads in our way with our own style.
And that's okay. We're all in the battle trenches every single day. My trench just might look and feel different than yours.
And here's the thing....and hopefully this isn't too harsh...Not understanding my situation doesn't give you the right to judge or condemn (verbally or nonverbally - trust me, I see the look in your eyes). If you haven't walked in my shoes, give me the benefit of the doubt. Or if you have walked in my shoes and my stride looks different than yours did, give me some grace because I'm probably still figuring it all out and I'm doing it my way.
I'm on the other side of most of the battles I mentioned earlier and I can look back with fresh eyes and bring to mind the people that helped me the most during those times. And those people were always the ones who were more interested in how I was doing than they were in fixing me or my situation. So next time you're in a situation where you're talking to someone and you're not sure what to say maybe the best thing to say is nothing. Maybe a hug and a smile and a simple "You're doing good, kid" is all that is really needed.
Or, of course, you could just say "Phteven". But then people might think you were crazy.