With the Emphasis on ‘As If’

Carry each other’s burdens,
and in this way you will fulfil the law of Christ.

 (Galatians 6:2 NIV)

In the early 1980s I was appointed medical adviser at The Salvation Army’s international headquarters. So who was I supposed to advise, I wondered – senior leaders, international staff, administrators of Salvation Army health programmes across the globe? And how was I to do this?

I saw a short course advertised: Introduction to Counselling. If I couldn’t get someone to teach me how to ‘advise’ perhaps I could glean ideas from the principles of counselling? So along I went to join with a dozen or so other health professionals. It would be part of my continuing professional development. Yes, I did get a certificate at the end of the week, but more importantly, learned a few basic rules which have stood me in good stead over subsequent years.
We listened to presentations from the tutor. He gave us a definition of counselling: ‘the act of listening to the problem so that you understand it as if it were your own, with the emphasis on ‘as if’. It must never become your own.

We worked in small groups and in pairs. ‘You listen very well,’ said my partner for the week, ‘but I never know whether you’re really listening or not,’ she said. ‘You just sit there like a zombie! Please show me somehow that you’re listening. I need to know I’m getting through to you. A nod, or even a frown would help.’

One of us needed to volunteer to be counselled by the tutor. Although this was to be a demonstration it had to be a real problem we were facing. Nobody was keen; nor was I. Anyhow I decided to expose the difficulty I was experiencing over the need for me to become British, in order better to travel internationally (as part of my work) at a time when there were severe restrictions for South Africans. I shan’t forget the discomfort I experienced as the counsellor prodded me and exposed some of the deep feelings that lay beneath the surface. Nor shall I forget the group telling the counsellor that they felt he was completely unsympathetic. 
‘But I’m not trying to carry his burden,’ was the response.

In the years since I’ve tried to listen in the spirit of ‘carrying the other’s burden’, if only for a while, and once the time of listening is over, to pass it to the one who said:
Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, .... and you will find rest for your souls. (Matthew 11: 28-29)

That way I can be quick to listen, and slow to give advice. It’s not my problem; it becomes his.