How Can One Help Someone in Critical Situations,
With the Aid of Ongoing Formation?
by Peter Angebault
Dear friends,Father Quintano asked me to take up a challenge: to suggest a developmental process for accompaniment, particularly during critical moments, for persons who have chosen consecrated life.
He suggested that I develop my talk from Pope John Paul II's Post-Synodal Apostolic Exhortation Vita Consecrata, Numbers 69, 70 and 71.
Here is a brief summary of these paragraphs from Vita Consecrata concerning my topic.
It concerns ongoing formation, seen as a necessity, in giving dynamism to fidelity.
After stressing that “none are exempt from the obligation to grow humanly and as religious”; and “by the same token, no one can be over confident and live in self-sufficient isolation” (VC, 69) the exhortation differentiates:
* life stages:
first years of full involvement in apostolic activities
risk of routine
maturity and the risk of individualism
* critical moments with job changes, setbacks, deaths, divisions, misunderstandings,..
Who am I to be speaking to you?
I am a 60-year old Eudist priest accompanying men and women religious, priests, and laity in their journey of life. How?
By occasional meetings: confessions, individual discussions; by consistent accompaniment, and in recent years by sessions at the request of communities.
Twelve years ago, during a sabbatical year in Canada, I came across the Institute of Integral Human Formation of Montreal (IFHIM). There I followed formation programs for one year and received much for my own journey in accompanying others.
My objective this morning is to share my experience and observations with you in how to help someone to concretely commit or recommit her life and to respond to her vocation.
I propose a talk in three parts:
How to approach someone who asks for help or needs help during a critical time, during a personal ordeal, or during particular circumstances of her life.
How to help during stages of growth/development: challenges of age
These first two parts refer to observations from No. 70 of Vita Consecrata.
The final section stresses three important points of interaction during accompaniment.
Part 1: How “to approach” someone who asks for help or needs help during a personal ordeal or during particular circumstances of her life?
Making an Analysis
Listen to the person with interest, without judgement, but allowing her to build a relationship of confidence. Let me explain:
During this listening, the person will express whatever is not going right in her life, guilt feelings for shortcomings, sufferings, doubts. It is advisable to listen to all that is said, but it is a listening which attends to the person herself, without dwelling at length on what is not going right for her.
This approach indicates that she is in the midst of choosing or at least looking for another way of living. She will need time to find a new sense of balance, but she is on her way. I am interested in her journey. I am not her judge, but her ally on the path she is undertaking.
In listening to the person it is important to have her see that she not confuse herself with her difficulties: she is a “unique person.” She does not reduce herself to labels by which she has a tendency to identify herself, to enclose herself or even to condemn herself: “I am without piety, lazy, sensual, homosexual….”
This requires a great deal of vigilance on the part of the listener. I am sure that your pastoral experiences in following Monsieur Vincent has taught you to receive difficult or seemingly outrageous confessions from those who come to you.
Here then are the personal levels that I choose to observe in order to know how she is living.
For that I observe
- how she treats her body: how is her health
- how she views fulfillment and work
- how she experiences her personal contribution among that of others
Let me explain:
How does she treat her body?
How does she handle fatigue and the signs of this fatigue?
How does she maintain its important balances: waking/sleeping, nourishment/elimination, time for work/time for rest and relaxation?
There is no need to do a medical exam which would undoubtedly not be well received, but simply, to look, listen, and observe the person who is sharing her difficulties, to note how she refers to her body, her health, how she lives in her body. We can tactfully be interested in someone's health without intruding and taking care to respect cultural traits. We do not talk about health in the same way everywhere as is done in Europe and North America, but we do live our health everywhere in the world! Moreover, a man must be very tactful in talking about health with a woman: being careful not to be indiscreet. I have not finished learning this myself; sometimes I go too quickly!
Why be interested in the body, the corporal dimension of a person? On the one hand, we cannot do anything without our bodies ... and on the other, moments of crises have repercussions on our bodies, in our muscles especially.
Here are some observable repercussions: spasms in the shoulders, the neck, the back, stomach problems, lump in the throat, inhibition or hyperactivity, and many other dysfunctions. We could talk about them again later if you would like.
These observations allow you to take into account the intensity of what the person is living, they guide you in helping her to take control. If this person has serious imbalances, if she is suffering in a way that cannot be explained, if she experiences moments of anguish, loss of a taste for living, loss of appetite, of sleep, if she has serious difficulties in getting up in the morning or going to bed at night, I ascertain whether or not she may be depressed. If this is the case I suggest that she see a competent person: a doctor who will, in necessary, direct her to a psychologist or psychiatrist.
In addition to the body, I observe the way the person sees her achievements. I want to talk about her work, adaptations to specific circumstances in her life. Does she show an interest in what she does? Does she have confidence in herself? Is she proud of what she accomplishes?
Then I observe how she experiences her personal contributions; that is, her contributions in her milieu of life. I want to talk about what she brings of uniqueness, of personal, without losing sight of the contributions of others. Is she at ease with others?
Together these elements allow me to choose how to help this person take control, considering her personal situation, her openness to herself and others.
B) Suggesting Accompaniment
What does it mean?
It means being interested in the development of this person, for as long as necessary; and encouraging this person to take charge of her life once again, in light of her values and her commitments. In other words: support her “desire to change,” her “desire to progress,” her “desire to live” her vocation.
There are many ways to accomplish this. I will share with you the one that is the most familiar to me, and that I find to be the most respectful of the person, but, I do not know everything!
It is “Affirming the person's strengths” so that she can make decisions adjusted to how she wants to live. Affirming the person's strengths. That is to say, helping her to be aware of her abilities to take her life in her own hands, so that she might use it in new occasions. How to arrive at this?
Attentive to what the person is saying about herself, I look for the times where she made real decisions. In making a real decision, the person reaches her goal in a determined way, she takes into account circumstances, her context of life; she shows her openness to herself and others.
Personally, I hold on to a decision, from what the person has shared, where there is action involved. This makes my intervention easier to follow. If needed, I delicately question the person to find out if she has other experiences to tell me. There are always more - if necessary - I have her tell me how she decided to come and see me!
When I find a clear decision, I propose to her, by asking her permission, to tell me again this decision, and in detail, while asking sufficient questions, such as, “How did you do that? …” until she sees herself achieving the goal that she has chosen. In making her clearly aware of what she did to arrive at what she wanted, I allow her to realize her psychological strengths, to affirm her strengths. But before going any further, I want to say a few words concerning psychological strengths.
In observing the people to whom he listened, the psychoanalyst and anthropologist Erik Erikson (1902-1994), noted the existence of psychological forces present in a person. He observed that when this person attains her goals in a determined and committed manner, she then experiences an efficient logic of action in the way of using these means. She experiences these forces, which he calls “psychological forces.” These psychological forces are: the force of the “pursuit of goals,” the force of “hope,” the force of “wanting,” the force of “competence,” the force of “fidelity,” and the force of “love.” Erikson, who discovered them, then wondered how these forces are developed in a person?
Jeannine Guindon, born in 1919, a Canadian psychoanalyst, psychologist, educator, and foundress of psycho-education, established a clinical approach to these forces.
In observing the young, and in particular young delinquents she was rehabilitating, Jeannine Guindon discovered, in her turn, the psychological forces already conceptualized by Erik Erikson. She called them “vital human forces.” She then made a discovery.
In observing the responsible and appropriate free decisions made by these people, she updated the indicators that revealed the presence of these forces. This clinical approach in daily experience allowed Jeannine Guindon in having one become aware, to “affirm one's strengthens.” She calls this “the actualization of vital human forces.” This awareness unifies the person, gives her confidence. She will be able to make new decisions, freely, responsibly and committedly, more geared to what she would like.
It is impossible for me to give you more on the theory of actualization of vital human forces. I prefer to give you some indicators and the way of making them appear in order to affirm someone's strengthens.
If you would like, I could say more on this during the time set aside for questions.
I am returning to my topic in describing for you now a way to help a person by having her discover in herself some indicators of vital human forces present in her true decisions.
When I have gone deeper into a coherent decision with the person, where she has achieved her goal, in opening to herself and others, I encourage her to see what objective she pursued. How to arrive at this?
I come back to the decision and ask, “In doing that, what did you want?” Perhaps her answer will be vague. Then I come back to her answer keeping the action verb she used and I “dig into” the verb by asking “In doing that, what did you want?” until her objective becomes clear to her. To have a clear objective and to hold onto it is an indicator of the strength to pursue goals.
When she has seen her objective, I ask her: “Is this important to you?” and I allow her to draw a link between what she has decided and the meaning that she gives to her life. The meaning of life present in a decision is another indicator of the strength to pursue goals.
In the same way, I also help her to see the adapted ways she had put into place to achieve her goal. The choice of appropriate means is also an indicator of the presence of the strength to pursue goals.
I question her on the way in which she knew how to take her time, in which she knew how to organize herself in the time and live with the delay. These are indicators of the force of hope.
Finally, I make her see the choices and the renunciations she was capable of making, in asking her the question: “what renunciations, what choices did you make to arrive at what you wanted?” This is an indicator of the presence of the force of wanting.
There are still other indicators, but our time is limited. To make appear the indicators of these forces is enough to “affirm someone's strengths.”
Let us understand well: it is not about explaining her forces to the person, but to make her aware of them through her experiences, her lived experience. I help her see her vital strengths in her decision. When she “sees,” I see on her face an emotional nuance, (a smile, an appearance of well-being, blushing) which tells me that the person has become aware.
I invite her to hold on to it. “In what you have seen of yourself, of your means, of your capacities, what do you what to keep? What will help you live your commitment?” Even in her ordeal she is capable of deciding in a determined way and this strengthens her in her choices for the rest of her life.
I hope I was clear enough; you can talk to me about it later if you would like.
Managing Emotions and Frustrations: Emotional Powers
I now want to talk to you about emotions and frustrations: what we also call affective burdens; that is, the shocks, the contrarieties which affect us in our everyday life.
To decide clearly, to make judicious choices one must be in a “state” to do so. As you have surely observed, having lived it yourselves, ordeals or crises are sources of emotions, frustrations, affective burdens that have to do managed, otherwise the person will make erroneous decisions. Emotions can distort her lucidity, and to be more precise, alter the perceptions she has of those around her and herself. As a result, she allows herself to “get involved” in her emotions. She no longer sees reality as it is.
We all experience this. Under the pressure of an emotional burden, it can happen that we see or hear things that do not exist or things that concern other people than ourselves; inversely, we do not see, we do not hear signs or messages that are addressed to us. Examples of these erroneous perceptions are plentiful.
If the emotional burden is very intense, it makes us live a drama which distorts reality still more and weighs heavily on our life with our surroundings. Hostility towards others or towards ourselves grows in us. Sometimes we “hold it against ourselves and others at the same time.”
What happens in us, when we are disappointed by a decision made by a superior, by a attitude of confreres who seem not very uncharitable to us? What happens when a setback, a car breakdown, a pastoral defeat, a fit of anger, etc., takes place. As you see, there are numerous sources of emotional burdens. They affect us more or less profoundly, but frequently, even everyday. We all live with emotional burdens. We do not always recognize them.
What do we propose to a person whom we are helping to manage her emotional burdens? How do we manage our own emotional burdens? I suggest you proceed in four successive steps.
First of all, recognize as quickly as possible the emotional burden we are experiencing, the events, the causes that provoke this emotion and what the emotion brings out in us. This is indispensable! But it is also very difficult and requires vigilance, an “attention to oneself” which educates us. Otherwise, we continue to live our burdens without being aware of them. People around us, they will be aware of them, often before us.
Observe what the emotional burden makes us experience, that is to say, psychic signs: all that is going on in my head, strange or excessive ideas, worries, restlessness, judgments about ourselves, about others, the impression of having a movie or video always going, generalizations, thinking or talking about everything or nothing, building up of grievances that have nothing to do with the situation, etc...
Observe too the physical signs of the consequences in my body, particularly: muscle tension as we spoke of earlier, emotions and frustrations always have an impact on our muscular system. You know people who have back problems after a trying meeting, who lose their appetite after a reprimand or contradiction, who burst into tears, who no longer see clearly. Popular language - at least in French! - is rich in colourful expressions to describe emotional signs or frustrations that we experience. I notice that this language calls on bodily discomforts. “I'm sick and tired of it,” “It takes away my appetite,” “I've got one of those migraines!,” “My head is going to explode.”
The time has come to decide to do something to be oneself again. This is the third step.
It amounts to undoing and getting rid of muscle tensions by doing appropriate physical relaxation exercises or tensing/relaxing muscles. Following the intensity of the burdens and especially the intensity of observable physical signs, I choose to do what brings me back to a sense of calmness. And I do it until I get results.
Here are some examples of relaxation or tensing/relaxing muscles: breathing, moving the extremities or the trunk of the body, more or less fast walking, vigorously practicing tensing/relaxing muscles. It is in trying that one learns what to do. Getting rid of tensions, to be present to oneself, takes perseverance, a true asceticism.
You will tell me that you use spiritual means: prayer, the rosary, lectio divina, adoration? I do not forget them, but I want to stress the prime importance of the body, in the management of our emotional burdens. Spiritual refreshment, sensory relaxation, music, the song of a bird, the beauty of a psalm, of a landscape, of a painting, of a picture… also contribute to the managing of emotional burdens but only in the measure that muscle tensions are undone, unwound, and eliminated first.
It is a true commitment to oneself that requires sacrifice. In a number of communities where I was brought to help people, the mother superiors gave some all terrain bikes (ATBs) for relaxation exercises and physical recovery of several young religious. “The results are noticeable,” these superiors tell me … as do the sisters of the community. Peace and harmony in the community have benefited from these recreations on bicycle!
Please do not think that it is necessary to build pools and gyms everywhere to manage emotional burdens! Pushing against walls, holding on to the rungs of one's chair, moving loads, wood, rocks, boxes, undertaking manual labor that requires physical work to relax, these are available to everyone, provided that these activities are chosen and experienced not as a chore, nor as a performance, but as to bring about relaxation which allows one to become oneself again, to love better.
Becoming oneself again, with the return of calm, the person perceives the signs of improved well-being. She takes a stand with regard to the event in choosing a new objective, in accord with the meaning of her life.
Managing emotions and frustrations is “to move,” that is, to leave the way of emotions or the way of frustrations, the heavy obligations, to come back to oneself, to interior freedom in order to decide in accord with one's values, one's true points of reference. This approach gives results. I have been a surprised witness of this with many collaborators and former students of the IFHIM.
Since 1995, we have been asked to help people who have lived through the horrors of civil wars. Through their faithfulness to practicing relaxation techniques, deep tensing/relaxing of body muscles, many of these psychically wounded people have come back to themselves, to re-choose their life, and for many to return on mission, to places still exposed to tensions. Certainly they used other means to clarify their choices, but all these choices could only be done because they had made this return to being themselves in managing their very intense emotional burdens as you can imagine.
All of us have to manage feelings in our everyday lives: happy or painful emotions. The occasions are numerous: contradictions, disappointments, irritations that are not lacking in the common life, work life, certain community exercises, even practices of piety. One must also add the more or less anticipated changes, separations, mourning, personal failures, serious misunderstandings. You will have understand that to decide in time, to undo and to get rid of one's emotional burdens is useful for everyone, but particularly for those who have chosen religious life, and community life.
In this first part, therefore, I have attempted to suggest to you a method of helping someone by rereading her lived experiences of taking control of herself. In seeing how she achieved her goal, in organizing herself in space and time, in choosing appropriate means, in taking into account the context of her life, she learns to be confident. She continues her apprenticeship, learns to recognize and manage her emotional burdens. She thus prepares herself to face the next challenges. At the time of a new meeting, the one who accompanies will ask her how she used what she learned?
Part 2: How to help during developmental stages: the challenges of age
At age 18, it can be considered that a person is almost shaped, organized, and equipped to continue her development until death. Following observations by Jeannine Guindon, and many writers, I notice that every ten years by a period of questioning arises. This questioning opens a new stage, brings to light new challenges, to deepen her commitment. It usually begins two years before the change of the decade. So, here are some summaries on these phases of adult life.
The twenties from 18-28 years of age
The twenties mark the entrance into adulthood. The young adult is impatient to make her mark as an adult by living autonomously. She feels capable of making a living and meeting her needs. She wants to prove her knowledge, abilities by concrete achievements. I insist on this need of the young adult to see him/herself in her achievements. I was able to note that often pastoral stages are suggested to people in their twenties, asking them to be content to look and observe the situation around them. This way often creates uneasiness for the trainee. Not seeing their achievements, these trainees lose their perspective and live a feeling of uselessness or boredom and sometimes a loss of interest in the work experience. What is there to say then of the hardship of unemployment for so many of young people!
The exhortation Vita Consecrata remarks that the first years of full insertion in the apostolate constitute in themselves a critical period. It adds that it will be important that these young people be accompanied by a brother or sister who helps them to fully live their love and enthusiasm for Christ.
A good service to offer the person in her twenties is to help her make concrete choices, without loosing her perspective. How can she take into account her mission, her consecrated life, but also her energy, and her fatigue? In having her specify her objectives, clarify what she wants, she will see more clearly the choices and renunciations necessary to organize her time for prayer and spiritual refreshment, work, healthy distractions, rest, and fraternal life. The Lord does not ask us to live our vocation to our detriment. I am sending you back to what I said earlier regarding the body and management of emotional burdens. This vigilance, of course, will be as necessary in the other phases of adult life.
We also help the young adult see how to continue to gain knowledge within successful experiences and how to continue to grow in competence.
The thirties 28-38 years of age
I will stress the development of interiority. Of course, it is different from interior life, from spiritual life. The person always desires new achievements, but in the twenties, she freely goes in every direction possible that is offered to her, whereas in the thirties, she will be more and more attentive to the meaning that these achievements have for her. Attentive to the values that she continues to interiorize, she wants to make her decisions in concert with that which is most important for herself. Yes, live achievements, but not just in any manner.
Often, during this period, there are difficulties living obedience, if the person has not made the necessary connections between what is asked of her and the meaning of what she came to live in a community. She is helped to clarify this in finding the connections between how she wanted to live in following the obedient Christ and that which is asked of her today.
The forties 38-48 years of age
I will emphasize a consciousness of the totality of her life. The person in effect becomes conscious of her age, discovers that she has reached the middle of her life (2 times 40 = 80!). She has only one life and only she is responsible for it. She is conscious of the totality of her life up until death. This consciousness often brings on moments of distress. This trial has often been described in literature, especially in autobiographies. This is the time when the person is aware of this loneliness that nothing will be able to fill completely. It is not surprising to see people in their forties seeking times of solitude. They need it to find themselves.
For most humans, this period brings many existential questions: Have I made good choices in my life? a good job? a good spouse? a good community? or even, have I chosen a good state of life? how can I live without children? without any descendants? Women anticipate these upcoming changes during their childbearing years. These changes also happen to men. Those of you who are listening to me, you know these questions of the forties. You also know the fragilities that follow. To support the person during this stage of life, it is appropriate to let her accept the questions, be aware of the difficulty she is experiencing and help her to decide something to manage all the emotional burdens that are the result. I have already spoken about this previously; I will not go back to it.
During this period, the person will have to give up her adolescent expectations of others in order to re-choose her life, such as it is now; it is in her today that she responds with love to the concrete call of the Lord.
It is in this sense that the exhortation Vita Consecrata talks about “the risk of routine and the subsequent temptation to give in to disappointment because of meager results” and the document invites to connect herself with her first option in “not confusing the completeness of one's dedication with the degree of good results.” You see, helping a person to come back to her first option, to her values, demands making her manage well her emotional burdens in order to take a stand where she is today. This is not done all at once. It is a daily asceticism, lived through love and in a love, choosing communion with the Lord our Shepherd, and his Church.
Meditation on the parable of the Sower (Matthew 13), during this stage of life, nourishes our steps in following the Sower. The Sower went out to sow. He did not come back discouraged by his lack of success. He remained faithful in sowing. He thus continues to sow the Word in me. If I am wrong, I hope the exegetes among you will be indulgent to me!
The fifties 48-58
If she can lower her expectation of others, the person reaching the stage of the fifties is capable of a new breath. Interiority continues to grow and overrides activity for herself. Less attached to her achievements as of those of others, her interest for the people around her becomes more refined. She also learns to relativize events. She is capable of individualizing her path like that of others. Through her adapted advice she participates in the growth of the people around her. She knows how to communicate modestly the fruits of her learning.
The sixties 58-68 years of age
In the sixties, people who accept their age show a particular aptitude for discovering the most important needs of their surroundings. Conscious of these needs, they respond to them, and, if needed, they do the necessary learning! In effect, one sees people in their sixties training themselves to help their grandchildren do their homework, learning the computer with them, new games, etc.
In communities, I have witnessed similar behavior in people in their sixties. Their openness to others, their love which has become more and more universal, leads them to place themselves at the disposition of others. They freely give themselves to fulfill services. If it is the time to retire from professional work, they are capable of leaving their functions without losing their know-how. How many former schoolteachers provide tutoring to students in difficulty, as well as to adults needing to learn to read. In like manner, one finds nurses, nurse's aides, social workers, cooks who offer their services to volunteer support works.
The period of 68-78 years of age
This is the age of wisdom. The person can contemplate her life. Certainly, she has known difficulties, but she sees how, by her decisions, she responds to the call, she adapted herself to the circumstances, without losing her perspective, which always gives meaning, the salt of life. One can help these persons in having them write their memoirs, or in having them retell the big decisions, the important memories of their life.
As often as possible, in the course of the retreats that I give to people who have arrived at this age or older, during a few minutes of individual direction, I help them to see the cohesiveness of their life, of their entire life. Going deeply into a significant decision for this person often suffices for her to make connections with all the important decisions of her whole life.
The period of 78 years of age to the end of life
Certain signs indicate that people are coming to a point of unifying their life. Provided they are still in good enough health to express themselves, people at the end of life often tell of their joy at seeing their life become clearer. They are often able to laugh at themselves, which to me is a sign of great wisdom! They desire to transmit their heritage in the form of memories, anecdotes often repeated of course, but these stories have a great deal of meaning for them. They are preparing for their meeting with Love, in discovering how this Love is already present in their lives.
Recognizing the challenges of age on a person allows one to better oriente oneself in order to make the diagnosis and offer appropriate help.
You will have observed that the critical situations revealed in the document Vita Consecrata no. 70 are relative to a large extent to the challenges to take up during the phases of adult life.
Part 3: A very short last part before concluding some important points to integrate during this accompaniment
Be Aware of Counter-Transference
Do not bring yourself into the story of the person especially if what she is saying echoes your own life; for it is essential to focus on the person for herself, in the way she is unique.
Always Have Yourself a Clear Objective
If necessary re-clarify your role when the relationship becomes more difficult. “What do I want for this person,” “how am I going to get myself to stimulate her in the meaning she has chosen to give her life.” I will be up to visualizing this person and differentiating her from myself, from my own evolution, from my questions, and from my personal preoccupations.
C) Only one Advice: Be Accompanied Yourself by a person that will allow us to visualize better our own personal journey and to respect the journey of others. Like our own, the journey of another is unique. When I accompany a person, I do not make a general plan, but I discover, at every instance, a person completely unique and that I choose to follow in her growth.
Dear friends, I am well aware of not having addressed the organizational modalities of this accompaniment of persons during their religious life. I shared with you my practices; that is to say, some dynamic components of accompaniment. You are aware of the necessity of suggesting supports to people engaged in consecrated life and putting the needed means in place.
What needs to be organized: sessions, retreats, awareness conferences, individual meetings? How do you form people for accompaniment in the spirit of St. Vincent de Paul and St. Louise de Marillac?
Only you are in a position to make these choices, from your observations, the means at your disposal, your formation, and especially the cultural settings of the countries where you exercise your ministry.
I close with a remark.
No. 71 of Vita Consecrata sets forth the dimensions of ongoing formation. I quote these: “life in the Spirit, the human and fraternal dimensions, the apostolic dimension, the cultural and professional dimensions, and finally, the point of view of the charism.”
I am well aware of having presented to you the human dimension, without, of course, isolating the other dimensions. I believe that in helping a person live real autonomy, you allow her to be adaptable to her surroundings, to her community, to her mission, to her spiritual life. You offer her the possibility of finding again in the roots of her decisions the grace, the living charism of your Founders, St. Vincent de Paul and St. Louise de Marillac. I do not lose sight that we are accompanied by the Holy Spirit, the One whom Jesus promised us.
My very dear friends, you live a great and beautiful ministry. I wish you the ability to continue to find much joy in serving the development of vocations, in discovering with the persons you are helping, the pathways of the Word of God in their everyday life.
Safe journey and perseverance in your own stage of formation. Thank you for your attention.
(Translation: Translation Center - Daughters of Charity, Paris)
MV2001-137-Ang=Angebault=How to help Page 15 of 12