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experiments in everyday chaplaincy 4

susan silk's ring theory

(image credit: wes bausmith)

a model for knowing how to relate

in episode 3 of this series, i gave some examples of our tendencies, as loving and helpful creatures, to want to connect with other people from a stance of our own experiences ("oh man, yeah, me too!) and to feel the perpetual need to help by offering unsolicited advice ("that sounds hard--have you tried therapy?"). you'll remember i noted that there was a time and place for both things, but that my challenge for you and i was to do better at also knowing when to simply be present.

i'll say again that this work is not easy, but smarter people than me have generously offered us clear and simple tools to help with the work of supporting our fellow human beings, and i want to share one of those tools with you this week. before digging in though, i want to take a small side track to explore one very specific type of situation: the nightmare of trying to avoid "saying the wrong thing."

here's what i mean. (each ****** is an invitation to pause and mull)

think of the last time that you suffered a blow from a big piece of bad news, the last time that you lost a loved one, the last time that crisis befell you. find that moment. take the care that you need to go back there (breathe, move your body).


ok now bring up in your mind the responses that you received from other people. sit with that for a moment. remember what others said. how did each different kind of response make you feel? did any provide comfort? did any cause further distress? don't think about the intent--feel the impact. breathe. shake it off and let it go when you're done.


now think of a time when someone very close to you had tragedy befall them. find that moment and remember the situation, and recall what the loved one expressed to you.


ok now think about how you felt in the moment before you considered your response to them. did you know what to say? were you afraid to say the wrong thing? did you definitely actually say the wrong thing? did your response feel authentic to you, or did you feel the need to fall back on platitudes for safety? sit in that moment for a second, and if your response received a response, consider that as well. shake it off if you need to.


now do the same thing but with someone with whom you are not close--an acquaintance.


deep breaths--this can be big work.

what wisdom came up for you in those rememberings?

how did people do at showing up for you?

how do you think you did at showing up for other people?

what themes arise when you think of helpful support versus unhelpful support? (it's ok to recognize that something intended to be helpful actually had an impact of harm. if you need permission to explore that very common and unfortunate paradox, consider it granted!)


moving beyond those initial questions, i'm curious if, in your reflection, you identified any situations where you actually, even unintentionally, further burdened the people you were attempting to support by (unwittingly) making them also support you, or where the support you received from someone has ever actually burdened you more because you felt the need to soothe them in addition to addressing your own stress? were there situations where you, the aggrieved, felt like you were being asked to hold the grief of others over your own situation? have you been guilty of unloading your stress on someone more closely affected by something that's happened?

(a personal example of this would be the fact that a friend once became very angry at me for not telling him that a family member of mine was in the hospital. after that explosion, i then had to manage that person's anger at me and my own deeply personal family worry. no bueno.)


if by now you're feeling like its not safe to say anything to anyone ever again, never fear! there are tools to help us do better. what i'm about to share isn't a holistic solution, in that it doesn't tell you specific categories of things to say and things not to say. (there's been plenty written about that.) what this tool does is give us a simple road map for discerning who needs support versus who we can ask to support us in any given situation. the tool is called ring theory, and it comes from a 2013 los angeles times op ed by susan silk and barry goldman.

silks's ring theory, as described by goldman, stipulates that in any situation, there is a primary aggrieved person, someone to whom something has happened. imagine that person's name inside a circle. around that circle is a series of concentric rings, and inside each of those rings are the names of people who are also crisis-adjacent. the closer the ring to the center, the closer the person to the crisis.

for instance, if you became very ill, you would be in the center. the ring around you would be occupied by those most closely affected by your illness (caregiver, partner, parent, children, etc.). the ring around that would be the next-most-affected group (friends perhaps). the next ring might be colleagues. the next ring might be acquaintances. outermost ring might be the 539 people you're connected to on facebook but haven't actually met. get the idea?

a guide for who needs support from whom, says silk, is thus: comfort in, dump out.

(look back at the image at the beginning of this article for a visual reference.)

our beautiful tool is what silk calls a "kvetching order", and per that order, we can trust: if in any given situation there is someone closer to the crisis center than you, you can only comfort them, and if you need to seek comfort, you should only do it from people further away from the circle center than you (or maybe co-occupants in your own ring).

in the example that i shared earlier, about my friend who became livid that i hadn't told him about my family member's hospitalization, his sin was "dumping in". his feelings were valid, and if he'd needed to kvetch, he could have done it to (good) a mutual acquaintance of ours or (better) a friend of his who didn't know me at all. all i required, as a centered person, was comfort.

i invite you to take a minute, if you're interested, and construct a ring with you at the center related to a recent grief or loss. who populates the concentric rings in this situation? is comfort in/dumping out happening, as far as you can tell?


now take a minute to think of someone very close to you who has suffered a loss, and make rings (as best you can imagine) for them. where do you fall? who should you only be comforting? to whom can you unload your difficult emotions around the situation? do it again with someone with whom you are only acquainted--how does that change things?


my challenge both to myself and to you is to accept that, when it comes to tough situations, you have 5 unique responsibilities:

  1. to identify/understand/accept your place in the ring structure. really think about this--who is likely most affected and therefore in the center? not being in the center doesn't mean you aren't affected (you absolutely are!), it just means that you aren't centered. accept that this process will contain some "best guesses" and many things may not feel cut and dry.

  2. to comfort and support the person in the center. this person is not responsible for making you feel better or holding your grief at their situation. you may have very frank and loving exchanges about experiences later, but in acute moments, this person is unquestionably the object of your support with zero asks of support from them. use the wisdom that you gleaned from your earlier reflections to guide what you say and how you show up for them. no "me too". no bright-siding. no unsolicited advice.

  3. to comfort and support anyone else closer to the center than you are. see instructions above. same thing, though often a little less intense.

  4. to reserve "dumping" or "kvetching" on your part for the ears of those further from the center than you. i would absolutely positively have personal grief and anger if a best friend were diagnosed with a terminal illness, and i could absolutely positively not ask that person, that person's parter, or their immediate family to hear and hold my woes about it (unless they ask, and then i'd be brief).

  5. to be ready for (and even to invite) dumping and kvetching from further in. holding and witnessing the experiences of others is the essence of chaplaincy, and it's one of the reasons i'm sharing this tool. if you have the capacity, be graciously ready for the emotional ton-o-bricks coming at you from one or more layers in. sometimes being further out means actively helping the further in, but it also entails being ready to be asked to do so.

so in a nutshell, that's one tiny tool towards a big lifelong project: the comfort in/dump out ring theory. it's not always easy to suss out, and it sometimes seems to oversimplify, but it's a great tool to use when you're relating to someone around grief and loss. try it out. hang it on your fridge as a reminder. see if it helps. and i will invite you, if you feel so moved, to add in the comments below any examples of comfort that have really resonated with you, and on the other hand any cautionary tales you may have about your impact eating your intent for breakfast. what wisdom can you share with us?

be well, keep growing, keep going.

abby hall luca

the hearth chaplain

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