Mother Teresa once said, “The most terrible poverty is loneliness, and the feeling of being unloved.” It's universally understood that the intense impact of loneliness is because of the deep sense of isolation - there is no one to offer encouragement. Out of the many books I have read and the people I have talked to about the subject of caring for a loved one with special needs, or being that person with special needs, the most common thread I see in the tapestry of their lives is long term feelings of isolation and doubts about whether or not they are valued by others. If I take this observation to the next step, I can say that as a parent of two children with special needs, I have seen the effects of these feelings in myself and my sons. This is a subject I can relate to on a fairly deep level.
In the book of James from the New Testament the author made a point by asking, "When you see someone cold or hungry, what good is it to say, 'I wish you warmed and full,' when you don't give them anything to either warm them or to eat?" (Paraphrased from James 2:16)
Encouraging someone who carries a heavy load of responsibility or who has a life-long challenge related to the health of their body or brain is not simple. I have spent years of my life evaluating encouragement, wondering what it would take to encourage me, and what it takes for me to encourage others. I've concluded that most of us express encouragement in ways that makes us feel good about ourselves giving the encouragement, without always realizing how we are affecting the other person. And I get it, that's a heavy conclusion, which begs the question of, "so how do we encourage others?"
Gary Chapman's book, The Five Love Languages: How to Express Heartfelt Commitment to Your Mate is one of the best resources I have found in my quest to understand encouragement. Published in 1995, Chapman's book has propelled the quality of relationships upwards, and it's been found that his principles can be effectively used in many life situations, not just in marriage or personal commitments. Gary Chapman's five love languages are:
- Quality Time
- Words of Affirmation
- Acts of Service
Most of us understand love through a combination of two or more of these languages, and they hugely determine how we respond to how we are treated. They also strongly influence how we treat others. And it gets more complicated: it's not always easy to determine what our strongest personal love languages are, or to readily see what another person's are. So while offering encouragement to another individual remains challenging, I believe understanding these love languages is one of the best vehicles for being able to offer effective and caring encouragement to others. The bottom line is, if we are to positively encourage others we need to pay attention to them as individuals, observe how they respond and what they respond to.
Right off the bat we can see how this works: if our loved one is needing quality timespent with us but we replace that time with a gift or a few nice words, our efforts, frankly, fall flat. Our best approach would be to make quality time with that person our priority and include with it our gift and words of affirmation.
I'll be honest, I read Chapman's book years ago, and if you were to ask me point-blank what is my best love language, I don't know what I'd say. And out of many people I've asked, a lot of them have had similar responses. I think that's because our lives are not static, they change and flow, and perhaps most often our needs are determined by our particular situation. My point is that it really does take observation and personal involvement to read someone's love language if we are to be a positive encourager to them.
I think this concept is huge in the special needs community, both for families and individuals with special needs themselves. Our common denominator is not our state of health or the abilities of our brains and bodies. It is that we are human beings, and as human beings we all have human needs of love and encouragement.
I can relate to this personally with my youngest son who deals daily with challenging disabilities. I have observed over the years that most often people will want to touch him, and then move on. My son does not value touch as people might expect, and that can complicate his life. First of all, his body does not respond nearly as fast as his brain does, so often by the time he can react to the touch the person has moved away. He will reach for someone who is not there. Secondly, touch is very often uncomfortable for him, his body and skin are very sensitive. Touching his head holds a particularly negative connotation for him, bringing back bad memories of times in hospital and medical procedures. He is also very aware of how others interact with him, and patting him on the head like a puppy is just not meaningful interaction. I laugh when I say this, but you'd be amazed how many people have wanted to pat him on the head to express involvement and encouragement. Further, when he was younger and learning to respond to sign language and gestures, touching him meant he was supposed to get up or change activities. Another point is that touching him can distract him from what he may be focusing on, becoming a huge source of frustration for him. Due to the nature of his condition making his body or hands function at all requires him to use all his concentration.
I learned all of this the hard way, personally making every mistake I just listed. I had to learn that my son does enjoy touch sometimes, but it's best if he is the one who initiates it. He loves to hug but does not respond well to it being forced upon him. If I had to choose a love language for him, I would say it's quality time. Recently he's had two friends begin to visit him almost weekly, just hang out, talk a bit, watch a movie, have some popcorn. He's wanted this kind of social interaction for a long time, and waited years for it. It's become the highlight of his week. He also enjoys just sitting next to me on the couch for long periods of time, but I am a very active person. I get anxious if I am not doing something or focused on something. I have to work at slowing myself down a little just to sit without an agenda, just enjoy the time together, even if it's quiet.
I really can't even begin to cover the impact of using the Five Love Languages as defined by Gary Chapman in one short essay, so if words can encourage you as the reader I would compel you to read it and try employing these principles in your relationships, particularly with those within the special needs community. If your friend or relative is a parent to a child with special needs, try to pay attention to what ways might best encourage them. If you are in a relationship with someone dealing with special needs of any kind, observe what they respond to, and how they respond to it. And ask! Don't be afraid to ask that person or their parent or caregiver how you can best interact with them. While you may not always get the most definitive answer, I guarantee you that you that simply the effort of asking will be very appreciated.
I will conclude with my life's deduction that encouragement is best employed when based on relationships, and relationships are best served when there is focus on the particular needs and preferences of the individuals involved. I strongly believe that if we use resources such as Gary Chapman's Five Love Languages we will see ourselves making a powerful impact toward encouraging others, and most likely receiving back those things that are most encouraging to us as well.
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Brian K. Wulf, Founder