Jim Taylor's Columns - 'Soft Edges' and 'Sharp Edges'

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Published on Wednesday, May 2, 2018

How to respond to tragedy

Sixteen members of a hockey team dead in a bus crash in northern Saskatchewan. Ten strangers killed on a sidewalk in Toronto. My mind reels. How do the survivors, the families, the friends and lovers, get their minds, their emotions, around these and countless other tragedies?

            A caveat -- I write this column as a personal expression.

            What do you say to someone who has just experienced a massive loss? What do you do?

            Some responses are less than helpful.

            The students at Marjorie Stoneham Douglas high school in Florida rightly told President Trump to keep his meaningless “thoughts and prayers” – instead, to do something about gun violence.

            That doesn’t mean you can’t offer prayers, or that you can’t feel sympathy. Given a choice between someone offering prayers, and someone NOT offering prayers, I would certainly choose the former. But platitudes are too often a way of avoiding getting involved. And you have to get involved. Even at some personal pain. 


Personal sacrifice

            During my family’s greatest crisis (over 30 years ago), a friend came and cleaned our bathroom. She recognized that we lacked the energy to perform even simple acts for ourselves.

            Other friends simply came to spend time with us. They brought the coffee. The burgers. They cried with us.

            They brought casseroles. Oh, my, they brought casseroles! But even surplus casseroles are better than not eating at all, because you can’t make the effort.

            They mowed my lawn, when even that routine task was beyond me.

            Do something. Almost anything.

            Putting flowers out at a memorial, sending a sympathy card, making a donation to a charity, lighting a candle in a church, won’t change anything. But it will make you feel a little better. And if you can send a picture, a card, it makes them feel a little better too.


What not to do

            It’s easier to identify things you should not do.

            Don’t say, “I know how you feel.” You don’t. No one does. In the depths of a crisis, I don’t know how I feel myself. Save your story until you’ve heard mine.

            Don’t tell me how a healer in Mexico, or Thailand, or the Philippines, cured your cousin. Even if it’s true, I care about me, not her.

            Don’t assure me that a watermelon diet is the answer. Or any other diet, for that matter. I need comfort, not answers. As Gertrude Stein may have said, “There is no answer. There won’t be an answer. There never will be an answer. That’s your answer!”

            Don’t blame it on God. God didn’t do it. If anything, God is grieving too.

            And lastly, don’t say, “If there’s anything I can do, just call me.” You’re shifting the onus for action onto the person least capable of dealing with it. I’m drowning, and you want meto tell youwhat to do

            A quotation attributed to Winston Churchill says, “It takes courage to stand up and speak. It also takes courage to sit there and listen.”

            So just be there. Listen. Not so you can leap in with your story, your advice, your solutions. But so that you can hear into the heart of the person with the loss. And once you hear, you’ll know how to respond.


Copyright © 2017 by Jim Taylor. Non-profit use in congregations and study groups, and links from other blogs, welcomed; all other rights reserved.

            To comment on this column, write jimt@quixotic.ca





Last week’s column tried to make the point that small moves can have big consequences. (Just ask a chess player who realizes, after his fourth or fifth move, that he has just blown his chances of winning the game!) 


Isabel Gibson commented, “My mother was fond of quoting the bit about not being able to do/fix everything, but still being required to do what one can. She attributed it to the Talmud:

‘It is not laid on our shoulders the responsibility of completing the perfection of God’s world, but neither are we free to ignore what we are able to do.’

            “Another endorsement for doing the small thing.”


Bob Rollwagen didn’t endorse my analogy between editing and painting: “Good Editing is a skill and requires a strong knowledge of the language. Throwing a blob of paint on another’s canvas is more than editing -- it is a critical shift in the painter’s thought. I assumed editors improved articles to better illustrate the existing thought of the writer.”

            Bob added, as an aside, “I am sure you will feel free to edit this letter.” 

            Then he went on: “Starting small is how the world grows. We get into trouble when someone steps forward to claim credit alone for the great success of many and feels entitled to an unreasonable amount of the reward. Christianity started because one person did not take all the credit, even after doing a great deal of the leadership. He understood the importance of followers and may have sacrificed himself so that they could be free to carry the mission forward. 

            “In today’s world, it is my opinion that many people that feel their six- or seven-figure incomes are deserved even when thousands of people contribute to the effort. They [feel] required to maintain exorbitant life styles, and much goes into savings or assets when they could be creating a society that is stronger through balance, education, and fairness, and investing in people.  Christianity, and maybe all faiths, are not about the strong getting stronger or the rich getting richer, but this is what most appear to strive for.

            “In the 1950s, the senior officer of a company was generally paid a salary that was ten times, on average, the salary of entry level employees. Now, 70 years later, the ratio in many global companies is 100 times and growing. [JT note: I’ve seen reports of 300 times.] One small step in the right direction would be to move the excess wealth into the public sector for health, education, and global resource management for the benefit of everyone.

            “Just a small dream, not a new dream.”


My cousin Michael Parmenter also disagreed with me: “I think ‘pretty good’ is a major understatement when it comes to describing Uncle Bill's ability as a painter. 
            “We're fortunate to have three of his works hanging in our house. One of them, which depicts a fly fisherman, uses bright red very cleverly and sparingly to tell you that it's early fall (no idea when he did this). 

            “My favourite is a painting which contains a sort of optical illusion -- at first glance all you see is lush dark green woods, but when you look more closely you can see a cabin hidden in the forest. The cabin is not small and once you see it you're amazed that it was missed initially. I always wonder how he did that.”






In hindsight, I mixed my metaphors in this paraphrase of Psalm 98. But I think you’ll grasp what I was trying to get at.


1          How different God's creation is from human society!

Humans seem to love the clamour of conflict. 
They create a cacophony, like instruments in an orchestra competing with each other.
Dysfunctional families sacrifice harmony;

Nations murder each other's melodies. 

2          But nature plays its parts differently.

3          The colours of nature never clash with each other.

4          In a garden, every shade of leaf and flower joins a joyous chorus; 

bare branch and bonsai provide a counterpoint  balancing the beauty of blossoms. 

5-6       In the depths of the jungle,  the sounds of termite and tiger weave a wondrous harmony;

eerie descants echo through the ocean's deeps. 

The rhythm of life throbs in every cell,  and the seasons swell and ebb away.

7-8       From the farthest nebula to the tiniest atom,  all creation dances to honor its choreographer.

9          God applauds each performance. 

But God detects the discords, too.  And God does not applaud them. 


For paraphrases of mostof the psalms used by the Revised Common Lectionary, you can order my book Everyday Psalmsfrom Wood Lake Publishing, info@woodlake.com.






If you want to comment on something, send a message directly to me, jimt@quixotic.ca.

            To subscribe or unsubscribe, send an e-mail message to jimt@quixotic.ca. Or you can subscribe electronically by sending a blank e-mail (no message or subject line) to softedges-subscribe@lists.quixotic.ca. Similarly, you can un-subscribe at softedges-unsubscribe@lists.quixotic.ca.

            I write a second column each Sunday called Sharp Edges, which tends to be somewhat more cutting about social and justice issues. To sign up for Sharp Edges, write to me directly, jimt@quixotic.ca, or send a note to sharpedges-subscribe@lists.quixotic.ca






To use the links in this section, you’ll have to insert the necessary symbols.

            Ralph Milton ’s latest project is called “Sing Hallelujah” -- the world’s first video hymnal. It consists of 100 popular hymns, both new and old, on five DVDs that can be played using a standard DVD player and TV screen, for use in congregations who lack skilled musicians to play piano or organ. More details at wwwDOTsinghallelujahDOTca

            Ralph’s HymnSight webpage is still up, http://wwwDOThymnsightDOTca, with a vast gallery of photos you can use to enhance the appearance of the visual images you project for liturgical use (prayers, responses, hymn verses, etc.)

            Wayne Irwin's Churchweb Canada,an inexpensive service for any congregation wanting to develop a web presence, with free consultation. <http://wwwDOTchurchwebcanadaDOTca>

            I recommend Isabel Gibson’s thoughtful and well-written blog, wwwDOTtraditionaliconoclastDOTcom

            Alva Wood’s satiric stories about incompetent bureaucrats and prejudiced attitudes in a small town -- not particularly religious, but fun; alvawoodATgmailDOTcom to get onto her mailing list.

            Tom Watson writes a weekly blog called The View from Grandpa Tom’s Balcony”-- ruminations on various subjects, and feedback from Tom’sreaders. Write him at tomwatsoATgmailDOTcom or twatsonATsentexDOTnet



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Author: Jim Taylor

Categories: Soft Edges

Tags: Losses, helping



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