Street Names and Relationships

The naming of streets and roads has long been of interest to me. As I travel locally or in other states I often notice the names and feel intrigued by their symbolism. Usually the names seem rather commonplace and even boring, especially if I’m on 20th Street or East Boulevard. There’s not much to contemplate about those names, but sometimes a particular name will invite attention and evoke curiosity. Why was that name given to this road? What does the name suggest or reflect about the people who live on this road? Would I want to live on this road because of its unique name? On a trip in 2012 I discovered Goodwill Road in Louisiana and my ponderings generated an article I called “Goodwill Relationships.” More recently I was traveling by car through the Memphis, Tennessee area en route to Arkansas. I was taking a short-cut from Highway 78 (I-22) to I-55 in an effort to bypass some heavy traffic. The short-cut turned out to be Church Road. As I drove for several miles along Church Road I pondering the implications of the name and I wondered about the people who lived on Church Road.

After driving several miles on Church Road I approached a traffic signal and had to stop for the red light. As I sat and waited I noticed the name of the cross street: Getwell Road. Oh, so I’m at the intersection of Church Road and Getwell Road. How interesting that these two roads intersected! You guessed correctly—more ponderings. Why do they simply cross each other at this one point? Why don’t they run parallel or on top of each other? Isn’t the church supposed to be about helping people to get well? Is not the church a hospital for sick sinners rather than a museum for sanctified saints? Is not every member of every church in a recovery mode in life—recovering from a lifestyle of spiritual sickness? Is the church not concerned about the whole person in terms of spiritual, emotional, and physical health? Should getting well be minimized to a minor mention, or should it motivate a major mission within the church? Indeed, what would life be like if we all lived on Church Road and Getwell Road at the same time?

As I pondered these questions I recalled having heard an interesting story about the naming of Getwell Road. A quick Internet search confirmed the story to be true. Originally, Getwell Road was called Shotwell Road.  In 1943 the U.S. Army opened a 3,000-bed veteran’s hospital on the corner of Shotwell Road and Park Avenue in Memphis, and the facility was named Kennedy Hospital. Rather quickly a concern was expressed by a thoughtful individual that the name “Shotwell Road” was not appropriate for wounded soldiers returning home. So, in an effort to improve the morale of the patients the county officials changed the name from Shotwell Road to Getwell Road. Clearly, the new name was a positive boost to the recovery of the veterans.

Further ponderings led me to the issue of getting well within human relationships and, specifically, to the connection between the two roads. Just as Church Road intersected Getwell Road at only one junction is it the case that our relationships have only one brief intersection with getting well? Or, should a relationship run parallel with or even overlay the process of getting well? Are relationships designed only for perfectly-well people or does every relationship involve two individuals each of whom is an imperfect person in need of continual healing and growth? How many relationships emphasize a getwell lifestyle? As a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist I’ve seen numerous relationships in which the interaction was more like “Shotwell” than “Getwell.” The goal of the two people involved appeared to be “let’s tear each other down” rather than “let’s build each other up,” or “let’s hurt each other” instead of “let’s heal each other.” How can any relationship get healthy or stay healthy when the two individuals do not have a “getwell” mindset toward each other? Clearly, the focus of every relationship needs to be upon healthiness, and that goal requires the practice of “getwell” attitudes and actions.

In a real sense every human relationship needs to be a “getwell relationship.” Each person in the relationship should view the other person with a mind to mend and a heart to heal. The commitment is clear:  “I’m here to encourage and promote your health, growth, and maturity.” This need is vital because our travel along the highway of life is hard. Sooner or later we experience collisions and collapses; we suffer from breakdowns and breakups. The reality of hardship was reinforced by a man who heard the saying “Into every life some rain must fall.” He responded, “That’s true, but in my life when it rains, it pours.”  The rain symbolizes the stress and struggle we encounter in our life journey. Because of the human condition every relationship needs to be a “getwell relationship” and every relationship should live on Getwell Road.

The issue of “getting well” stirs up my thinking in regard to a related issue—comforting. A relationship cannot function effectively as a getwell relationship unless the two people participate in comforting each other when comfort is needed. Sadly, too many people do not understand the need and therefore make little or no effort to extend comfort, while other people recognize the need but are not equipped for extending comfort in a meaningful manner. As a result the relationship is deficient in comfort-giving and the process of getting well is hindered. Many people suffer from long-held resentments and grudges related to another person’s neglect in providing comfort during a time of crisis and pain. The hurtful memory of “you were not there for me when you should have been” can haunt and harm a marriage or a friendship for many years. In contrast, the provision of appropriate comfort can be deeply appreciated and long-remembered because “you were there to comfort me when I needed you the most.” The provision of positive comfort is a powerful generator of relationship connection and closeness. 

Let’s assume that we value effective comforting because we understand its importance in getwell relationships. Furthermore, let’s assume that we try to be effective comforters, that is, we want to be ready, willing, and able to provide comfort as needed to people around us, particularly to our loved ones. Our desire to be effective comforters raises several important questions. What does an effective comforter look like in attitude or action? What is his basic mindset in regard to people who are hurting and who need to be comforted? What skills or tools does he possess which can be used for extending appropriate comfort? If you were to imagine the “ideal comforter,” how would you describe his attitudes and actions? At this point how well do you measure up to that ideal comforter? What are your “comforting strengths” and your “comforting deficiencies?” With these questions in mind let’s explore the comforting process and try to improve our abilities to serve as effective comforters in our getwell relationships. Overall, our goal is to provide comfort, a process that includes several related actions such as strengthening, encouraging, providing moral support, relieving anxiety, consoling one who is in distress, bringing hope, and easing misery or grief. Specifically, let’s consider three principles that will improve your work as a comforter and promote the comforting process. In our discussion we’ll refer to the one giving comfort as the comforter and to the one receiving comfort as the comfortee.

Principle #1:  Intentionality—Discerning the Motive

The first principle of effective comforting is “Intentionality—Discerning the Motive.” The inner intention that motivates our attempts to comfort someone is crucial to our effectiveness. Therefore, we need to discern our motives. The term “discern” means that we assess, determine, ascertain, and figure out what our underlying intentionality is that motivates the comforting behavior. Why do I want to serve as a comforter? What is my purpose—my motive?

Admittedly, we could provide comfort for reasons that are not positive or sincere. For example, comfort could be used to manipulate or control the receiver’s behavior to give us something that we want. We could comfort people primarily to enhance our ego or image, and so we seek opportunities to look like the wonderful rescuer or the proverbial knight on the shining horse. This type of comforting behavior illustrates a motivation that is selfish and self-serving. In contrast, effective comforting is the unselfish giving of ourselves to another person who is in physical or emotional pain. The right intentionality requires a key component—concern. We are genuinely and sincerely concerned about the person in need and, compelled by compassion, we attempt to comfort as our way of trying to help. Our positive intention is to comfort the person in need in the best way possible for his encouragement and health without any desire to get something back for the effort. In a getwell relationship each individual is committed to the health and well-being of the other person; all comforting behavior should say to the comfortee “I want you to get well.”   

Principle #2:  Information—Discerning the Matter

Now let’s examine the second principle of effective comforting: “Information—Discerning the Matter.” Let’s assume that we have already discerned our motives and believe that our intentionality is positive and appropriate. The next step is to discern the matter; that is, we need to know “what’s the matter?” The key component of this principle is consultation. We consult with the comfortee (or with appropriate other people) to clarify the problem at hand and the specific needs that exist. Sometimes the same comforting process will work for multiple needs and circumstances; at other times a particular need could call for a specific type of comforting behavior.

Without the “what’s the matter” information we could rush in blindly and do more harm than good, even though our intentions are honorable and sincere. Sometimes we make errors in our hospital visits because we get confused about surgical procedures with similar names—but with very different meanings! At other times we blunder due to a lack of up-to-date information. Sometimes circumstances change and our comforting efforts could be interpreted in a negative way. For example, I know of a minister who was out of town conducting a revival when he decided to send a getwell card to a church member back home who assumedly was still in the hospital. The minister mailed to the member’s home a humorous card that depicted a patient covered up with blankets lying in a hospital bed. The caption read “Heard they have you all covered up. Hope you dig out soon.” He added a brief personal note and mailed the card. Unfortunately, by the time the card arrived at the family home the patient had died and had been buried. Fortunately, the minister heard about the death and was able to get another church member to intercept the now-inappropriate getwell card before the deceased person’s family read it. You can imagine the minister’s relief to know that the family had not seen the “digging out” comment.  This kind-hearted minister would never knowingly offend anyone or hurt someone’s feelings. However, even the most skilled comforter can make mistakes. Other examples could be shared that would illustrate the principle of information. Before we try to extend comfort we need to discern the matter; we need current and relevant information.  This principle of information is vital to effective comforting.       

Principle #3:  Intervention—Discerning the Method

Finally, let’s explore the third principle of effective comforting which is “Intervention—Discerning the Method.” The key component for this principle is consolation. We want to make certain that the method we use will actually provide the consolation that is needed. The process can be confusing because there are multiple methods through which we can attempt to provide comfort to people who are in pain or distress.

Communication is vital to the discernment of methods. As a marital therapist I’ve discussed the issue of comforting with many couples who were in various forms of distress. I’ve often seen a great deal of added (and unnecessary) frustration simply because the two spouses had never shared with each other what they expected in regard to mutual comfort. In many marriages each spouse assumed that the other spouse would want to be comforted in the same way the first one preferred. While that conclusion could be accurate it is more often the case that their assumptions generate behavior that is ineffective, unwelcomed, and even resented. For example, Carl and Carol* were one such couple whose mutual assumptions led to serious marital conflict. In Carol’s family of origin a sick person was quarantined in a bedroom and was given minimal attention. Isolation and privacy were considered to be the best way to provide comfort. However, in Carl’s family of origin the sick person was placed on the sofa in the living room where he was the center of attention. Comfort was provided as the patient was pampered and doted on by everyone who passed by the sofa. So, what do you think happened when Carl or Carol got sick? When Carol became ill Carl tried to get her to stay on the sofa so he could shower her with attention, but she headed for the bedroom of quarantine. When Carl got sick he camped out on the sofa and waited for positive attention. However, Carol quickly quarantined him to a bedroom. Both spouses were disappointed and frustrated because their comforting methods were very different. They had to communicate to each other their personal preferences, and they had to make adjustments in their own styles in order to accommodate the other spouse. Let’s learn from Carl and Carol. We cannot expect spouses or other people to know automatically what we want in regard to comfort. They cannot read our minds, nor can we read their minds. It is to our mutual benefit to communicate openly and honestly about preferred methods of comfort-giving and comfort-receiving.

If you’re married, how clearly have you discussed the issue of comforting with your spouse? How much comforting does each one want to receive? How is that comfort to be expressed? What type of comforting behavior is not helpful or welcomed? If you want your marriage to be a getwell relationship, you’ll be extremely interested in knowing how your spouse will respond to these questions. Hopefully, your spouse will be just as interested in your responses. Additionally, how would these questions be answered in other human relationships such as in your family of origin or in your friendships?

Regarding this issue of comforting in getwell relationships, let’s get practical. Every comfort-giver needs a personalized “Comforter Toolbox” that contains a variety of strategies and practices related to the extension of comfort. As a comforter you probably have a personal style with specific “tools” that you prefer to use. If your personal approach seems to be effective just keep on using it. However, we might need to modify our styles or upgrade our tools to move toward increased effectiveness in our comforting work. Let’s look at five specific tools that you might want to include in your personal toolbox.
(1) Comforter Toolbox:  “Personal Presence” 
One important comforter tool could be described as “personal presence.” You use this tool when you are physically present with the person needing comfort. Your presence itself conveys concern and will hopefully provide some level of comfort. For example, you could go to a hospital room and simply sit with a patient who does not want to be alone during a time of serious illness. Or, you could be physically present with someone who is grieving the death of a loved one. “Just being there” is sometimes the best type of comfort you could give. Your comforting behavior might also include some amount of talking and listening, depending upon the needs and wishes of the comfortee. Remember, your purpose is to provide comfort, not to seize the setting as a stage on which you make yourself the center of attention.
(2) Comforter Toolbox:  “Physical Touch” 

Another effective comforter tool is physical touch. Most people feel comforted by appropriate physical touches. When done correctly, the action of physical touch is a powerful nonverbal expression of love and concern. A hug, a touch on the arm, holding a hand—these actions can be very positive and helpful when they are welcomed by the receiver. However, the issue of touch can be tricky and risky. Some people do not welcome physical touch when they are ill or in sorrow. The comforter must discern whether the physical-touch tool is a wise choice in a given situation. If you’re unsure, you can always ask the person if physical touch is wanted or unwanted.
(3) Comforter Toolbox:  “Practical Gifts” 
Gift-giving is often an effective method of comfort-giving, particularly if the gift fulfills a practical need. As comforters we can take reading materials, pretty flowers, getwell cards, or other helpful items to the patient in the hospital or the person at home. The taking of food has long been a meaningful method of extending comfort. The offer to run errands or to clean the house can provide comfort in a practical way. A spouse might provide comfort by preparing meals, doing laundry, or by assuming more of the parenting work.  This sharing of gifts is designed to convey concern and interest in the recipient’s stressful situation and to bring about as much ease and relief as is possible.
(4) Comforter Toolbox:  “Peripheral Contact” 

Another comforter tool is peripheral contact. Regrettably, due to geography we might be unable to use our on-the-scene tools. Because we are external or peripheral to the physical setting we must resort to our long-distance contact tools. We communicate with the comfortee through phone calls, email/text messages, or “snail-mail” getwell cards. We can order flowers or other appropriate gifts and have them delivered to the person’s hospital room or home. We can assure the comfortee that he or she will be in our daily thoughts and prayers. These types of tools can enable us to practice distance-comforting. Geographically, we might be peripheral to the person in need, but our efforts are relevant and important to the needs that exist. Our peripheral contact safeguards and strengthens our relationships when we cannot be together physically. 
(5) Comforter Toolbox:  “Perfect Question” 

The final tool in this current list is an action I consider to be the “perfect question.” At times even skilled comforters are at a loss to know what to do. Perhaps the situation is extremely complicated and confusing, or we may not know the individual very well. Even spouses at times may not know how to help each other through comfort. In some situations no one is available for a consultation about specific needs or preferences. In dealing with friends, extended family, or immediate family we’re uncertain about the best comforting method to use. At times like this I extract from my toolbox the “perfect question” tool. I ask the person in need a simple yet powerful question: “I’d like to help however I can, but I’m not sure what you want or need. Please tell me—what is the best thing I can do for you right now?” That question (“What is the best thing I can do for you right now?”) takes the guesswork out of the comforting process. The comfortee determines the need and expresses it to me, and I do my best to fulfill the need, assuming that the requested behavior is appropriate and possible. If the person responds with “I don’t know,” I can tell the person, “Give it some thought. If there is something I can do to be of help, please let me know.” The interchange might not turn out perfectly, but the question itself is a perfect one to ask in times of uncertainty.

Without doubt there are other useful skills that you could develop and keep in your personalized Comforter Toolbox. The purpose of all items in the Comforter Toolbox is to provide consolation to the person in need. Regardless of the chosen method the intervention is designed to comfort and strengthen. Hopefully, all of the comforter’s behavior will say clearly, “I want you to get well.”

Most people in emotional or physical pain will welcome and appreciate your attempts to comfort them. However, some people do not want to be comforted, and they will resist, reject, and resent your efforts to provide comfort. Their reactions may seem strange and puzzling to you and you might be tempted to force the comfort on them, whether they want it or not. However, as a wise comforter you’ll respect the other person’s right to reject your comfort. If your comforting efforts are declined, you can walk away with integrity, knowing that you did what you could in regard to helpfulness. You might feel regretful about the person’s choice, but you would allow that choice to be made without your taking on a load of unhealthy and unnecessary guilt. Try to maintain the perspective that the individual is saying “no” to your comforting behavior; do not interpret the decline as a rejection of you as a person. The sad truth is that some people will not be comforted. For some reason they prefer to remain in a state of pain and suffering. Our walking away at their request does not mean that we are abandoning them; rather, we are simply respecting and honoring their personal choices.

Concluding Thoughts . . .
Comfort-giving is an important component in our travels through life on the Getwell Highway. Our journey is more meaningful when we think of comfort-giving not only as a helpful practice but also as an honored privilege. Indeed, we are honored when people allow us to comfort them. The practice of comfort-giving is perhaps a duty of all mankind, but at a deeper level the extension of comfort is a privilege that blesses both the recipient and the giver.

This article has focused on the process of giving comfort. Another focus deserving attention is the issue of receiving comfort. Some individuals struggle with being the recipients of comfort, and they do not function well as receivers. They might feel unworthy and undeserving of the comfort, or perhaps they don’t want to be a burden or imposition to the comfort-giver. They might interpret the reception of comfort as some type of indebtedness they’re expected to repay, or they could perceive the comfort to mean that they are weak, dependent, and needy. On the other hand, you could want and welcome comfort but you fail to let other people know that you would be a willing recipient. They will not express comfort to you if they do not understand the need. If you’ve struggled with these thoughts and feelings, you could be very frustrated in regard to the whole issue of comfort reception. If that’s the case, you would do well to explore your current pattern and try to grow in your ability to receive comfort. This work could be done privately through self-examination and personal effort, or you could participate in some professional therapy in which these issues are addressed. However, you might be content with your current pattern. If you prefer not to be comforted by other people, at least in specific ways, you need to be assertive in communicating your wishes to the people offering the comfort. Hopefully, the comfort-givers will respect your wishes and will refrain from forcing unwanted comfort upon you. Assertive communication will prevent unnecessary frustration on both the receiver and the giver.

When comfort is both given and received in a positive manner each individual is benefitted by the exchange. Furthermore, the relationship between the two people is strengthened and improved. As stated earlier, our journey in life encounters hardships that involve stress and struggle. When the road of life gets rough we welcome comfort as a precious gift that both encourages and equips us to endure the hardship and to complete our journey. We travel through life together and we share comfort with each other as needed. In a real sense we all need to live on life’s Getwell Road, and all of our human relationships need to be Getwell Relationships. 

I wish you the very best in all of your relationship journeys, and even more so as you travel through life on the Getwell Highway.
*Carl and Carol:  These names are fictitious and are used here to represent all couples who struggle with comfort-giving issues.

Related Articles: Several prior articles written by Dr. Baker relate to the current material. To see two of these articles click on the titles below. The article “Compelled by Compassion” explores the importance of human compassion in relationships from a spiritual perspective.
                “Goodwill Relationships”
                “Compelled by Compassion”
VIDEO:  To see a television interview in which Dr. Baker discusses relationships and comforting please click on the image to the right or click here.


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      (Healthy Relationships Blog #120)


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