How people interact or ask questions makes all the difference in the world.
Zachary and Mary, for example in Luke’s account of the two annunciations, each asked questions of the messenger who came to them. Zachary’s question “How am I to know this?” was challenging. As a high priest, Zachary was used to being in charge. His question reflected that. Mary’s question “How can this be since I know not man?” was a question of a believer, who wanted to know more about what was to be.
When we question someone, it takes work to make our question welcome what people really want to say. Children, for example, are either struck mute or given aid to open up, depending on the questions we ask. If we say “Why don’t you like peas?” a child will be threatened. If we say “You don’t like peas as much as carrots, do you?” the tone is softer and gives the child a chance to respond to the comparison with still another possibility “No, I like celery best of all!”
Jesus’ adversaries were continuously trying to trap him with their clever questions. “Is it lawful to give tribute to Caesar?” And in today’s Gospel, the lawyer, who tried to exonerate himself asked: “Who is my neighbor?” Jesus did not answer these questions directly. He told stories instead -let people draw their own conclusions.
Our language either build up other people or it tears them down. We can say: "Of course you can!” “Why don’t you try it?” “That was wonderful!" To say: “You never get it right!” is to erode confidence and to increase the emotional distance between people.
The hardest time to know what to say is in the face of someone’s illness – or the death of a loved one – or their own pending death. In these situations, we come face to face with our own finiteness and vulnerability, and perhaps we blurt out an insensitive remark. Maybe we stay away completely or say nothing at all.
Here are some thoughts that may help. First of all, focus on the other person. When someone wants to or needs to tell the story of their own illness or the events surrounding a loved one’s death, what’s called for from us is listening, holding the person’s hand, rubbing them gently. They don’t need to hear parallel accounts from us.
We don’t always need to have an answer for every question, nor do we need to know everything.
People who have had a long illness, for example, don’t want to give a daily health report to every caller.
Finding the right words to say to someone who is terminally ill is especially hard. Perhaps a squeeze of the hand might help, or saying “I’m sending you a shot of love until I see you again.”
In the matter of learning to say the right thing to people, no word is absolute. We need to practice words of encouragement, comfort. Stay open to the Holy Spirit, whose inspiration is never lacking for us.
~Sister Joan Sobala