“I understand”

There’s something about sharing common experiences with another person. We might say opposites attract, but when it comes to connecting with others finding common ground is normally a great place to start. Perhaps this is driven out of our desire to be understood, but wherever this connection comes from, it’s powerful.

Just think about a time when you’ve introduced yourself to someone sitting next to you on a plane only to find she used to live in your home town. Or when you bond with someone over something that seems insignificant: a favorite restaurant, musician, hobby or history. Parents are famous for this. We meet another parent and begin chatting about how alike our 4-year-olds are.

As powerful as like connections are, the same is true for those who believe they are like us when they truly are not. When I was a new mother at the ripe age of 20, boy did I get an earful of parenting advice from many an experienced older mother.

How to discipline.
How to clean my toddler properly.
How to dress my baby.
How many blankets my baby needed when it was cold outside (which in Texas was 60 degrees).

But it wasn’t the well-meaning advice from these sweet but occasionally obnoxious women that bothered me most. It was the advice I got from people who weren’t even parents yet. Now, I understand that there are some basic parenting principles that most people learn growing up. However, when you map out a trail for someone else to follow when you haven’t even meandered that way yourself, you’re operating out of ignorance.

I’ll be honest here: I’ve done this. For years as a youth pastor I judged parents (whether I spoke it or not) by how they were parenting their teenagers. Because I had toddlers and I hung out with these teens, I figured I knew a thing or two about how to parent. Then a 9th grader moved in with us, and I was slapped in the face with the reality of how incredibly challenging raising a teenager can be.

When Aaron and I began to pursue foster parenting certification, I arrogantly believed I knew a lot more than I truly did about what foster parenting would entail. Again- we’d raised a teenager who wasn’t our biological son, so we knew a tid bit, but my view from April 2013 sure is broader than my view from April 2011.

When I get together with other foster parents, there’s something about the connection I have with them. They know what it’s like to have a CPS worker who is basically non-existent or how it feels to be filled with fiery anger when your foster son’s father doesn’t show up for his weekly visits. They also know what it’s like to feel frustrated with a child, because you are reaping the detriment their broken parents invested into them.

How little I knew of these things two years ago….

And now I know why the apostle Paul said, “I gave up all that inferior stuff [the law] so I could know Christ personally, experience his resurrection power, be a partner in his suffering, and go all the way with him to death itself.” (Philippians 3:10-11) We don’t REALLY know people until we share experiences with them, do we?

I’m not saying that because my sister has experienced the loss of a child and I have not that I do not know her. But I don’t know THAT part of her, do I? I can empathize with her and others like her who mourn, but I don’t truly know the depth of her suffering, because I haven’t experienced it. But what if I tried to understand it? What if I tried to compare it to a loss I’ve experienced and then wrap my loving arms around my sister to say, “I understand.”

That’s a lie. I do not understand, and it would be frightfully unfair of me to say I do. Comparison is not only the root of inferiority, it is also a cause of injustice. If we believe that we understand people when we do not, we will treat them in a way that they do not deserve. On the other hand, if we acknowledge the gap between our experience and that of another person, we are able to extend the grace they need to feel our love.

I’m no expert, but I have been on the receiving end of too many inaccurate “I understand’s.” The next time you’re tempted to give advice to a hurting person, remind yourself what the Holy Spirit does: He comes alongside us and gently lifts our heads to remind us of the only One who completely understands our burdens because He carried them long ago.

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