Asking The Right Questions

It has been a very busy week, which means that this has been the first chance I’ve really had to write, since this post came to me a week ago. The week before last I spent a couple of days visiting a local CAP debt centre, experiencing what it’s like on the front line, with the centre managers and debt coaches who go out every day to see clients. Whilst I was there I saw clients who had found themselves in debt for different reasons. For some problems with budgeting were the root cause, whilst for others life had simply dealt them a difficult hand, and they were dealing with it the best they could. Whatever the reason, we aren’t there to judge them but to help them the best we can.

What I struggled with the most, wasn’t that people could get into such debt,  but that they could end up so alone. That the weight of shame and fear could be so much, that they wait years before telling someone and getting help. Client’s often come to CAP when they’ve reached rock bottom, when after years of going it alone, they just can’t keep it up any more. For me the saddest stories are those from clients who only found out they were in debt when their partner committed suicide, after they just couldn’t carry the burden alone any longer. Whatever the situation clients often feel like they are completely on their own.

It makes me wonder how many people in their lives noticed something was wrong and didn’t say anything. Were they really that good at pretending? Were there a procession of missed opportunities to listen or to help? Or have they always been as alone as they feel?

I suppose everywhere around us there will be people who find themselves drowning in life. Whether that be because they are crushed under the weight of debt, battling poverty, illness, difficult life events or bereavement. There’ll be families across the UK with empty cupboards, facing a hungry Christmas. There’ll be people who don’t know how to face another holiday season without their loved one. Many thousands feeling lost, alone and hurting. These people will be our friends and neighbours, we’ll find them in our churches and workplaces. And whilst many of these people may suffer in silence and struggle to ask for help, that doesn’t mean they aren’t desperate for someone to offer it. It doesn’t mean they aren’t waiting for someone to throw them a lifebelt. There is nothing lonelier than struggling on your own.

It’s got me thinking, in our friendships and relationships, are we really asking the right questions? Do we ask people how they are out of politeness, or do we really care and listen to the answer? Are they just the words we say, or are they measured and intentional? Do we notice when the people in our lives aren’t themselves, and do we take the time to really stop and find out why?

I think sometimes we forget how powerful words are. We can be so quick to use them on small talk or the weather, or to gossip about who’s dating who. We get so caught up in the normality of everyday conversation, that we forget that those same words, have the power to throw someone a lifeline, to show them that they’re not alone. We can’t rescue people, rarely can one person wade in and save the day. But we can ask the right questions and really listen to the answers. Then maybe just maybe we can help people to save themselves.

My life is marked by those people who asked the right questions and listened to the answers. I remember all those conversations, they remind me that I’m not alone. They encourage me to keep swimming even when it seems like the current is too strong. I’m not sure where I would be if no one had dared to ask.

According to the Samaritans, one person dies by suicide somewhere in the world every 40 seconds. Every 40 seconds. It’s difficult to even get your head around it. That’s one million people every year, the equivalent to twice the population of Bradford. Utterly heartbreaking. I don’t know what it would have taken to pull those people back from the brink, it might be that they were thrown a hundred lifelines and threw them all back. We can’t torture ourselves with the cruel gift of hindsight. But equally we must not forget that every single one of those lives was precious to God and the people who loved them. And equally precious are the lives of all those who will find themselves on the brink in the next year. They may well be people in our lives, people we know and love. Again we cannot expect to be able to rescue people on our own, there are unlikely to be any quick fixes. Nevertheless we have to be open to asking the difficult questions and being prepared to listen. To show people that they aren’t alone and that their story doesn’t have to end here. To hold out hope to those who can no longer hold it for themselves.

The thing is, CAP will be here to help those people who find themselves trapped in debt, and we’ll strive to reach as many people as we can. But there will be countless more drowning people, carrying the weight of many different problems, who we won’t help. What would be truly wonderful, is if we could build communities that could catch people, that would notice when people first got out of their depth. Communities that asked the right questions and threw out lifebelts to the hurting and the desperate, in their communities and outside of them. Communities that loved no matter the cost. After all, isn’t that what our churches should be?

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