96. My Hand or My Shoulder?

96. My Hand or My Shoulder?

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Family Matters


My Hand or My Shoulder?

An older sister is a friend and defender—a listener, conspirator, a counsellor and a sharer of delights. And sorrows too.

~Pam Brown

“I need a shoulder to lean on.”

My wedding was just a few months away, and my sister and I were sharing a quiet evening out. She spoke softly, head down, eyes averted. I was older by two years, and there was little we didn’t know about each other—or so I thought. Yet, her tone and body language told me to be prepared for something new… and unpleasant. With a few words, she made me aware of a situation that shocked me, forcing me to face my own limitations and reassess how I approached all my relationships.

“I need a shoulder to lean on.”

I’ve always found it easier to play the role of a hand in my relationships than to function as a shoulder. It’s my nature to try to fix problems when someone shares a dilemma with me. My instinctive response is to evaluate the problem, then search for—and help implement—a solution. I view it as a challenge when I’m told I cannot make a difference. Offering a shoulder to lean on, without trying to fix the problem, is one of the most difficult roles I’ve ever had to learn and accept.

“I need a shoulder to lean on.”

These words opened up the heartache of having my precious sister reveal that she was being sexually abused by a close family member. It had been going on for years, and even though she was now an adult, she labored under the misconception that she had to tolerate ongoing abuse out of respect for the family leadership role of her abuser. I begged her to seek professional help, but she refused. Her eyes widened in terror—not terror over being mistreated, but terror that she had exposed the dreadful secret she had carried for years. She made it clear she would deny everything she had shared if I discussed her circumstances with any third party on her behalf. Since she was of legal age, I could not force her to take action.

However, it made me angry that she was less frightened of being molested than of exposing her abuser. She had gone to considerable lengths to prevent family and friends—even me—from discovering that our apparent model family was not what it appeared to be. I found it impossible to understand the conditioning that made her think she had to continue tolerating mistreatment. How could one person feel so hopeless and helpless that she believed it better to remain a victim than to expose the abuse?

And how could I not have known? We lived in the same home; we had even shared a bedroom. But my school, work, and social commitments kept me out of the house from morning till evening. I hadn’t been there when she needed me, and guilt consumed me.

Now she wanted and needed a friend to confide in. I reluctantly agreed to respect her wishes, hoping she would eventually change her mind. But how could I sit by and do nothing? At least I had access to a “third party” she couldn’t object to: I could pray for her.

I married soon after that initial conversation. She rarely called me. If we spoke, it was because I reached out to her. Our conversations grew less frequent, most likely the combined result of her embarrassment and my increasing inability to hold my opinions in check. During the rare occasions when she would again share her heart, I became more and more frustrated. She was an adult, but she wasn’t making adult choices. I was angry at her and angry at her abuser.

But I also had choices. I could allow anger to burrow deep into my soul, ending our relationship and disrupting my own emotional and spiritual health, or I could offer her what she had requested: a shoulder to lean on. I could also use my hands, but on her terms, not mine; to hug and to hold, but not to fix. It was a new role for me, one that I did not easily embrace. Nevertheless, it was all she wanted, and I could not force her to accept more.

She married a few years later and moved away. The abuse had finally stopped, but her healing had yet to begin. My concern crossed the miles, but our telephone conversations deteriorated into polite ritual.

“How are you?”

“I’m fine.”

“Are you okay? Is there anything you want to talk about?”

“I’m really fine. How is the weather by you?”

We spoke of our jobs, recipes, headlines, music, fashion, politics, even sports. Everything except what we both knew was truly important. Words were exchanged, but little was said.

More than thirty years have passed since that first fateful conversation. While I am still here for her, our relationship bears little resemblance to what it once was. On those ever-so-rare occasions when I dare to broach the subject and suggest she receive counseling, she refuses and still defends her abuser. My heart aches to think of the lingering emotional damage she lives with. She still doesn’t understand my frustration, and I still don’t understand how a vibrant, intelligent woman could ever think she deserved to be treated in such a shameful manner.

In spite of, or maybe because of, the pain of watching someone I love suffer in this destructive situation, I’ve had to prayerfully accept the truth that there are many things I cannot fix, no matter how much I want to and no matter how hard I try. I’ve learned, and am still learning, that I can offer resources and suggestions, but I can’t make choices for others. I can be there for support, but I can’t live their life for them.

Most of all, I’ve learned a new and difficult lesson about forgiveness. Because my sister confused forgiveness with continued acceptance of abusive behavior, I thought that she was the one with the problem. I found to my chagrin, however, that by extension, I also had a problem. I was on a path to spending the rest of my life angry and resentful over the damage her abuser had caused. I was giving him power over me that he had no right to have.

But I had another option. I could choose to forgive, with the understanding that forgiveness does not signify tolerance of evil, but rather, frees me from a prison of my own making. Continued unforgiveness would only provide fertile soil for bitterness to take root in my heart, causing me to become an indirect victim of the wrong done to her. God forgives me for my sin. For my own good, I needed to extend forgiveness and release my anger.

This relationship caused me to reevaluate the strengths I thought I brought to all my relationships. Friendship does not mean that I have to fix every problem my friend experiences. Neither does it mean that I should sit back and do nothing. No matter how helpless I may feel to effect change, I can still pray for those who are hurting.

My head and my hands. There was so much I wanted to give her. But what she really wanted was my shoulder and my heart.

~Sue Jackson

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