This essay is a product of the Collegeville Institute’s Emerging Writers Mentorship Program, a 13-month program for writers who address matters of faith in their work. Each participant has the opportunity to publish their work at Bearings Online. Click here to read other essays from the 2021-22 Emerging Writers Program cohort.
Being on the receiving end of “I don’t mean to meddle, but…” can strike annoyance in even the most fearless folks. But lately I have cultivated an appreciation for this sort of gutsy preamble. “Meddle on!” is my typical response.
Though long regarded as the domain of bored busybodies and tiresome troublemakers, meddling can be a beautiful offering of love, care, and connection. Meddling, by definition, is about getting in someone else’s business and, as a society, “mind your own business” has almost become the 11th commandment. It shouldn’t be. There is, of course, bad meddling, which prioritizes the needs of the meddler over the person of concern. Yet, the meddling I’m talking about is holy and necessary. At its core, it’s about noticing and responding to the needs of others. Our culture needs more of this engagement and care. While I haven’t always been an evangelist of meddling, my mother’s world championship belt in the art inoculated me against any reaction beyond mild irritation and bemusement. I grew up understanding that her actions were rooted in love and extended that understanding to other meddlers in my life.
Witnessing acts of holy meddling began to feel like a patch of godlight shining in the darkness.
Yet, it was my work as a hospice chaplain that transformed my relationship to meddling altogether. Dying and grief tend to be isolating periods of life. Witnessing acts of holy meddling began to feel like a patch of godlight shining in the darkness. The generous, but often clumsy, gestures of noticing and responding to needs often soothed the relentless sting of loneliness, sickness, and death. The friends who arrived, despite protest, to take an overwhelmed caregiver to the beauty salon. The homecooked Italian feast brought by church members for the family subsisting on fast food even though they said they were fine. The buddy who snuck a flask of Kentucky bourbon for his dying friend with no regard to the contraindications. The neighbor who showed up to babysit and do laundry for an overwhelmed mother who had just lost her middle child to brain cancer.
As part of my spiritual assessment with patients and families, I would typically ask them to tell me about their circle of support. People would list their extended families, their coworkers, their church family. But when I asked them to elaborate on the nature of the support they were receiving, the standard answer was a wistful, “Well, I know they are praying for me.” I found that most people wanted their social circles to do a little bit of meddling, even if they would never articulate it that way. In times of illness, grief, and loss, most of us are just focused on making it from one moment to the next. So often we don’t know what we need until our cupboards, both emotional and material, are completely bare. An unexpected kindness can feel like an answer to a prayer we hadn’t yet known to pray.
So often we don’t know what we need until our cupboards, both emotional and material, are completely bare.
To my dismay, I have seen several recent advice columns discouraging unsolicited assistance or counsel in times of grief or tragedy. The prevailing wisdom is to offer distanced support that will not cause any offense or violate any boundaries. Unfortunately, popular culture has given us the vocabulary of personal boundaries without the tools and insight to keep those boundaries from becoming cages. Additionally, Covid-19 has forced us to distance from one another and has led to even more awkwardness when we do try to reconnect. Social media has offered us sterile engagement through commenting, liking, and sharing, allowing us to forget that consciously noticing and responding to the needs of others is often hands-on work. We are waking up to the fact that self-care is not enough to get us through difficult times in our lives, yet we haven’t figured out the best practices for collective care.
Though we may not like to admit it, meddling is an essential part of collective care. Here are few ways that we can do it well:
- Dare to Be Intimate: Meddling, at its best, is about human-to-human connection. One typically shouldn’t meddle in the lives of people you don’t know much about. Our meddling should be rooted in relationship and deep listening. It is easy to confuse familiarity with friendship. If you don’t know the names of their close family members, their birthday, their hobbies, their values, and their preferences, think long and hard before you meddle in their lives.
- Let Yourself Be Vulnerable: Good meddlers realize that sometimes their meddling will not be appreciated. If your meddling is rejected, simply apologize, and reiterate that you remain available to provide care and support in ways that are comfortable for the recipient. This is not the time to get defensive or to argue your case for why you know best. The recipients, especially in extreme situations, can respond however they want.
- Trust the Holy Spirit: I believe that the best meddling is guided by the Holy Spirit. Part of our calling as spiritual beings requires attunement to the suffering and needs of others. Our contemplative practices should invite us into deeper relationship to those around us. This absolutely does not mean that you should initiate any act of meddling with “God told me to…” Most people do not appreciate that type of divine intervention. A simple “you’ve been on my heart” is more than enough to initiate a conversation and act of generosity.
This era of increased isolation calls for increased intentionality in how we attend to our relationships. A great start is asking how we can make our care tangible for our friends and family. With love, connection, and creativity, our meddling can be an answer to someone’s prayer. Go forth and meddle well!