See that trench? It’s under major construction. There is heavy equipment escavating and doing repair work.
That can be scary, right? Everything tells us to keep away from the danger there. There are warning signs. We may get hurt.
But what if someone is stuck there for a while? How do we come alongside them so that they can eventually emerge repaired and restored?
A few weeks ago, I wrote the tiny portion of thoughts below. I knew it wasn’t edifying. I had the good sense not to put it on social media. (Points for self control!) But I was sore, raw, sleepless, hope-starved, and feeling very alone. It was challenging to talk to people in any light-hearted setting and make conversation.
See, as it should, life goes on for other people in the midst of our personal trials, but it took everything in me to give my conversational angst to God and restrain my tongue. If you are currently deep in the trenches of a crisis, illness, or despair of any kind, perhaps you can relate. I decided to include my thoughts (at the time) below in order to be fully disclosing, to demonstrate my own failures, but also to show you how real I feel it.
If this is you, please know: I GET YOU. This pretty much sums up my perspective whenever stuck in my personal trench:
I am usually an incredibly compassionate person willing to extend my ear and heart to almost anyone. (My kids may say the opposite, but as a mother, I’m wired to mix compassion with healthy boundaries.) I’m actually quite proud of that, as it is pretty consistent…as consistent as my flaws of impatience and low frustration tolerance can be.
But sometimes we are in a season of full intensity, and our tolerance for other situations and needs is completely on “empty.” I am at that place most days right now. Do not tell me about your stubbed toe, or your kid getting a C on a test, or your trash dumped out on the street and the collectors never picked it up. I’m sorry to hear all that, but my pain filter is set on Extreme right now, so anything lower than Mediocre isn’t going to register.
And don’t give me your heaviness. It will literally crush me right now. I can’t encourage you, and it’s not my role. I can’t give back at the moment. If you can’t handle that, please walk away for a while.
And I hate that. I hate not being available. I hate not having the capacity to handle the mundane. I hate not listening and lending a hand. It’s not who I am. It’s unnatural to me.
But I was swirling in a vortex.
When I am not the one in pain, I likely do this to others. And I want to say right now:
I’m sorry. It feels like abandonment when other people’s lives go on, and I’m so sorry if I ever made you feel this way.
I’d like to think I won’t do it again, but I will forget once this crisis in my family is over. Maybe that’s a way for me to understand. Not everyone can live inside our circle of pain, and certainly not everyone is called to sit there and swirl with us.
The truth is: I wouldn’t have wanted to drag anyone down into this vortex. If for any reason you would have felt compelled to visit me here, you would have needed to bring your own lifejacket and rope out. At the time, you couldn’t trust me to help you get back out again.
I’m taking a step out of the trenches right now—or maybe it is better to say that I can breathe a little and am waiting for a sign that it’s okay to step out. Nursing a loved one back to better health has taken a massive toll. I don’t know what’s left after the polarizing trip down Crisis Lane. I know I can trust God to build something beautiful from the ashes because He has done that so many times before. But my excavation equipment is still sitting there right next to me in the trench. Maybe you can see it. Yup.
Isaiah 61:1-4, ESV
The Spirit of the Lord GOD is upon me,
because the LORD has anointed me
to bring good news to the poor;
he has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted,
to proclaim liberty to the captives,
and the opening of the prison to those who are bound;
to proclaim the year of the LORD’s favor,
and the day of vengeance of our God;
to comfort all who mourn;
to grant to those who mourn in Zion–
to give them a beautiful headdress instead of ashes,
the oil of gladness instead of mourning,
the garment of praise instead of a faint spirit;
that they may be called oaks of righteousness,
the planting of the LORD, that he may be glorified.
They shall build up the ancient ruins;
they shall raise up the former devastations;
they shall repair the ruined cities,
the devastations of many generations [emphases mine].
In this pause, in this “Be Still,” where normal feels like it may just be within reach again, I am taking a moment to reflect on my Trench Sitters. In my trench right now, they may have hung in there a while but had to let go for their own situations and lives. They may have been too close to the source of the pain, so I kept them at arm’s length so I could hear God more clearly. Maybe they brought a meal, sent a daily text, wrote me a note, sent a package, and/or made sure I took care of myself. Or they may have been there the whole time with me, bringing a cushion to sit on, blankets to weather out the long haul, and a hot cup of coffee to my trenches, making themselves a permanent, hourly fixture in my pain.
Whatever they did, I thank them for having the courage to enter the trench, even if they couldn’t park there for a long while. We all have different roles to play in a crisis.
Let me tell you some key traits of a Trench Sitter. Maybe this will help you grow in becoming a better one, or maybe it will help you practice gratefulness with those who offer this to you. It’s precious.
1. They give of themselves. It is not convenient, it is not without sacrifice, and it is often unthanked for a while, but they give without expectation of return.
(If it doesn’t feel like it is ‘costing’ you anything, you are probably not really in the trenches but just outside them.)
2. They do not look for accolades.
3. They do not give up when it becomes hard, challenging, painful, and murky.
4. They trust God to tend to them while they tend to the one in the trenches.
5. They have healthy boundaries, take care of their own families first, but also know that if God calls them to serve someone in the trenches, He will meet their needs as well. (See Number 4.)
6. They speak encouragement and let the pain, anger, and negative thinking fall away, but they do not judge it. Their entire goal is to “be still” with this person, listen—and by being present—hold hope out ahead of them. It is not to fix the feelings in the moment.
7. They are sensitive to the needs of the moment.
When I was in an emotional swirl where I needed someone simply to hear my darkest thoughts and fears but not try to “fix me,” I told some folks:“I don’t need ‘solve’ right now. I need ‘feel.’”
And when I was in a good-enough place to hear solutions, I told those same folks:
“Okay, now I need solve.”
Thankfully they listened. It meant the world to me.
8. They are prepared for the bumpy ride and also that it may seem without end for a while.
9. They are not easily offended, and they are secure enough to not have their ego invested in the emotions of the one with whom they sit in the trenches.
10. And probably the most important one (for me personally):
They do not pretend there is no trench.
That list is from my own experience needing trench sitters, but I also know from having sat there with others that I need to work on some of these.
How about you?
Maybe you don’t feel strong enough to trench-sit. Certainly, there are times we are not called to do so, but if in general it intimidates you, I assure you that if God gives you this assignment, He will absolutely give you what you need to be there for that person.
Does this list take the pressure off you a little? Maybe you want to sit with someone in this place of dark swirl, but you thought you had to have all the answers? You don’t. Simply being there is often enough.
What would you add to this list? What would you take away?
I am not out of the trenches just yet, but I am learning a lot along the way both from those who pulled up a rocky place next to me and also from my God, who never leaves me.
Deuteronomy 31:6, ESV
Be strong and courageous. Do not fear or be in dread of them, for it is the LORD your God who goes with you. He will not leave you or forsake you.
More reflections on this topic can be found in Cheerleading in the Trenches.