Unless you’ve witnessed it firsthand, it might be hard to imagine what life is like for the refugees we serve in Iraq and Syria, or those who’ve traveled hundreds (or thousands) of miles on foot to reach the southern US border.
It’s difficult to wrap our heads around stories of unbearable suffering, of children who’ve watched in horror as their parents’ lives were taken. Or the struggles of refugees who desperately need medical care or even just basic necessities, like food and clean water and clothing.
It’s impossible to imagine a life so difficult, you’d give everything you have to walk across deserts and risk life and limb in search of something better.
But we don’t have to fully understand their plight in order to show up for them by helping fast… and by giving help that lasts.
We can choose to love anyway.
But what about the people in your own community?
Caring for those who are suffering on the other side of the globe is important. But sometimes we fail to recognize the hurting people in our own lives.
We need look no farther than across the room, the street, or that guy we bump into every day at Starbucks to realize…
Where there are humans, there is suffering.
And where there is suffering, there’s an opportunity to love.
You may be wondering, “How can I love someone I don’t even know? What about that friend or family member I do know who’s, well… difficult to love?”
What about the person who’s done unspeakable things (the sort you can’t even imagine)? Or someone who sees life through an entirely different ideological lens than yours?
What about someone who identifies differently than you do, or who rejects your identity? What about someone who worships or believes differently than you do?
How do you love people so that they know you mean it, difficult or not?
10 Secrets to Loving People Through Your Words and Actions
1. Be open-minded.
A person’s worthiness isn’t defined by their religion, politics, ethnicity, orientation, or lot in life.
Look for people who are hurting all around you—in your living room, workplace, the local jail, the oncology ward of your local hospital, or refugees who’ve just been relocated to your city.
Where there are people, there is suffering. But it looks different for every individual. So keep an eye out.
2. Be kind.
When you humble yourself enough to extend kindness to someone who is hurting, you can almost visibly see their heart begin to change. Who knows? Yours might change too.
If the other person is a stranger, start with a smile.
Sound simple? It is. That doesn’t mean it’s easy, though.
Have you looked around when you’re out and about these days?
Most people are scowling or staring at their phone. Try the simple act of looking people in the eye and smiling, and notice what a difference it makes.
In the words of Mother Teresa, “Let us always meet each other with a smile, for a smile is the beginning of love.”
Opportunities to show kindness are all around us if we just slow down and pay attention.
When someone you know is suffering, begin with something simple like a phone call, a note of encouragement, or an invitation to meet for coffee.
Just make the first move, and let them know you’re there.
One of the keys to loving well when someone is hurting is the ability to imagine what they are feeling. It’s learning the whole story, imagining ourselves in that story, and choosing to love anyway.
Empathy is easily confused with compassion, but they’re not the same. Compassion is an instinctive (and sometimes) fleeing response to someone’s suffering. Empathy is the ability to identify with their experience. It runs deeper, lasts longer.
And it requires something compassion doesn’t: connection. Empathy is not possible without relationship, without making a real effort to get to know the other person.
This requires a lot from you emotionally, so be sure you’re able to handle the weight that may come with the territory.
Being able to empathize with others enables you to understand someone’s experience in a real, impactful way. And it goes a long way in letting them know they’re not alone.
4. Be genuine.
Want to connect in a way that shows you truly mean it?
Someone who is hurting can spot a fake a mile away.
It’s better to say nothing at all and simply be present for the other person than to pretend to understand and destroy the trust you’ve begun to build.
5. Expect nothing in return.
When someone is hurting or marginalized, reciprocating kindness may be the last thing on their mind—and for good reason.
Don’t assume that a lack of response in kind is a rejection of your love. Don’t expect applause or overt displays of gratitude.
Just keep showing up. Keep listening. Keep offering your presence. Sometimes building (or rebuilding) relationships requires pressing into pain. But the long-term effects can be life-changing.
6. Just listen.
Be present. Pay attention. Be patient. Celebrate progress. Have an “I hear you and I am here for you” attitude.
Don’t approach the other person as a “problem” to be fixed, but as a person to be valued, honored… and listened to.
You certainly aren’t going to have the ability to say the “perfect” thing that will suddenly remove every burden.
But what you can do is grab some comfortable chairs for the two of you and settle in for a listen.
7. Let them make their own decisions.
If our 10+ years serving families in conflict zones have taught us anything, it’s this: we’re not the answer to other people’s problems. They are.
When a person is suffering—whatever the reason—the last thing they need is for the friend or family member they’ve begun to trust to suddenly start dictating their next steps.
It’s fine to give advice when solicited, and if you’ve taken the time to listen to the other person first.
But often, the best thing you can do is be the friend who stands quietly alongside them cheering and encouraging while they make their own decisions about what’s next.
8. Love in small ways.
Grand gestures are nice, but they’re not always required.
Sometimes what a hurting heart needs most is a hug, a pat on the back, or your mere presence to let them know you care about them. Things that cost nothing but speak volumes.
Sometimes what’s needed is help cleaning the house, or a ride to the grocery store. Sometimes it’s a few dollars for groceries quietly placed in the hand.
Serve often in small ways to let them know they are loved.
9. Keep showing up.
Pursue, don’t retreat. Especially when the going gets tough. Press into pain, rather than running away from it.
When things get tense, look for common ground—it could be a lighter moment you can share together.
Loving someone who’s suffering or who sees things differently or who’s experienced the world differently can be difficult, but that’s when it’s important to continue to show up and love anyway.
Let them know you’re there for the long haul, not because it’s easy, but because you love them regardless of the difficulty.
10. Look for other ways you can help.
We’ve covered some of the most important ways you can love someone who is suffering or who feels alone, but sometimes the outward needs are just as great.
How you can help depends entirely on the situation, but here are a few ideas:
- Put together a care package for a family in need
- Partner with community organizations to support a refugee family
- Offer to clean house for someone who is physically struggling
- Offer to teach English to refugees who are resettling here in the United States
- Volunteer to help with transportation to doctor visits or the grocery store
- Invite someone over for a meal, or just to hang out and watch a movie so they aren’t home alone
- Fill someone’s tank with gas
Sometimes the needs are obvious, and other times you’re left guessing. Do your best to pay attention, and compile a list of ideas of things you can do as you are able.
No Matter What Comes, Love Anyway
Suffering, loss, and isolation take a heavy toll on those who live through it, but when healing takes place, something amazing happens. A deep understanding and compassion often follow.
It’s worth it.