Solving a Problem vs Being with a Person [Pope Francis Bookclub]

Solving a Problem vs Being with a Person [Pope Francis Bookclub] August 25, 2014

In 2014, I’m reading and blogging through Pope Francis/Cardinal Bergoglio’s Open Mind, Faithful Heart: Reflections on Following Jesus.  Every Monday, I’ll be writing about the next meditation in the book, so you’re welcome to peruse them all and/or read along.


In this week’s chapter, Pope Francis uses the parable of the Good Samaritan to shed light on exactly what criteria Christ will use to sift the weeds from the wheat:

In the end, we will all be judged on whether we have “become neighbors” of all flesh, on whether we have drawn close to suffering flesh.

Many do not draw near at all; they keep a distance, like the Levite and the priest in the parable [of the Good Samaritan].  Others draw close by intellectualizing the pain or taking reference in platitudes (“life’s like that”).

I am, as you may expect, very very bad at this.  I’m prone to intellectualize all things in the first place, and, in the second (somewhat related) place, I spent a lot of time as a kid-through-college-student practicing Stoicism.  So though I may be useful to suffering flesh, I am seldom, if ever, close to it.

When I was a little kid, I wound up finding and reading my parents’ copy of You Just Don’t Understand! Women and Men in Conversation by Deborah Tannen.  Tannen wrote that, in general, when a friend had a problem, women were more likely to discuss how the friend felt (“That’s awful” “You must be so frustrated” etc) while men were more likely to try to solve the problem.

I instantly recognized myself in the latter category.  Sitting around and talking about feelings seemed to me like trying to scrub blood off a floor before you applied a tourniquet to your friend’s wound.  The unhappiness was a response to some outside source, and it seemed only prudent to me to manage the problem first and then cheer people up after, if any jollying was even necessary at that point.

One of the guys I dated even recommended me to a friend as a problem solver saying, “That sounds pretty hard.  You should talk to Leah about it.  She doesn’t have any feelings, so she’ll be really helpful.”  The mutual friend of me and the then-boyfriend assumed “she has no feelings” was perjorative and tried (completely unnecessarily) to convince my then-boyfriend to patch up whatever fight we were in.  My petit ami was forced to clarify that he meant “Leah has no feelings that will distract her from solving your problem.”

I’ve come up with better ways to offer something for my friends’ emotional needs in moments of crisis, but it still feels pretty Chinese room-y to me.  To me, the repetition of “There, there” “I’m so sorry” and all that feels generic, more like a stochastic process, the kind of thing it would be easy to write a chatbot (or a chatbot/baby harp seal!) to do, even though my kind of “help” is probably also fairly algorithmizable.

Are there things you commenters do to be better disposed to be the Good Samaritan to others, rather than the good troubleshooting dialogue box?

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