A friend from my congregation had a teenage daughter who had suffered from a serious medical condition since she was a small child.
When my friend told me that her daughter was having severe episodes, I asked if I could add her name to our congregational prayer list. She declined. She didn’t want to spend the coming weeks defending her choice of treatments or doctors. She didn’t have the energy for people touting remedies they’d heard about or tried for their own related and unrelated conditions. She had faced it all before.
Several years later a different friend took me aside to share some sad news. She was dying of cancer, and there was nothing more her doctors could do. She fought for twenty years, longer than anyone expected. She told me how grateful she was to see her daughters, who were toddlers when she was first diagnosed, mature into beautiful young adults. Then she said, “You know, one of the hardest things right now is all the suggestions people have about treatments. I know they mean well, I know they want to help, so I just listen.” She joked that she should write a list of things not to say to someone who is sick.
When we encounter suffering, we want to fix it. But our intention to help bears little fruit if we don’t know what our loved ones truly need. Don’t misunderstand; I value advice from family and friends and often seek it out. We need each other’s help, we need each other’s knowledge, and more than anything we need each other’s prayers. “The prayer of faith will save the one who is sick.” (James 5:15) But when we presume to advise someone without their permission, we destroy their ability to seek the kind of support they need. It leaves them defensive against further intrusion. Doing this habitually strains relationships, making any intention to help ineffective. We need to adopt a healthier approach to supporting our friends and family through times of struggle.
It is not our job to give medical advice. It is unethical, damaging, and dangerous to insert ourselves into someone’s medical decisions without invitation. In my quest to understand good boundaries, I sought out people who’ve been on the receiving end of a lot of medical advice from friends and family and I asked for their guidance. They told me that there are certainly times when suggestions are welcome and useful, but there are important conditions that need to be met.
The first is that you should already have an established and trusting relationship with the person. In order to offer useful input, one needs to be up-to-date and knowledgeable about the illness and treatments in general, familiar with their specific situation, the history of the illness and what has already been tried. Uninformed suggestions are exhausting to listen to and frustrating to answer. Unless you are a close friend or family member who has been continuously involved, don’t expect to help in this way.
Before offering any suggestions, take great care that the information is credible. It’s easy for charlatans to sound credible to people looking for hope. I can’t overstate how dangerous this is. Offering unsound advice, either for or against a course of treatment, risks devastating health consequences and wasted time and money.
Don’t fall into the trap of passing on medical information obtained from non-conventional sources outside the medical establishment. The vast majority is junk science. It’s naïve to suppose that remedies touted by non-professionals are more reliable than a doctor’s counsel. Medical school counts for something. Sowing distrust for conventional doctors is a dangerous path; any alternate remedy one suggests ought to be clinically proven.
If you’re not sure you meet these criteria or that your proposed remedy withstands scrutiny, steer away from giving advice. There are better ways for you to help. If you do meet these conditions, you still need to be thoughtful with how you present your ideas. Never blindside someone with copious amounts of information without permission or warning. Be brief when asking if they are interested. If they are, find out how they want to receive the information. There’s a good chance that conveying the information in writing is best so they can consider it at their own pace. Do not pressure someone to act on your suggestion or to follow up with you afterward.
Weigh the decision to give advice carefully. By giving it, you are taking a tremendous liability on yourself. If any harm comes to the person, you bear responsibility. Never have the cavalier attitude, “it doesn’t hurt to try.” It certainly can hurt. In his commentary on Leviticus 19:14, the eleventh-century commentator, Rashi, teaches that giving unsuitable advice is a transgression of the commandment to not place a stumbling block in front of the blind. We will be held accountable for our influence. Don’t be eager to put yourself in that position.
If your first impulse is to offer medical advice, holding back might feel as though you’re forfeiting your best asset. Don’t worry; with practice you will find better ways to help. If you take time to listen and understand what someone is going through, you’ll tap into what they need from you more than your answers. When someone feels pressured, bombarded, or blindsided by your attempts to fix their problems, your efforts will be wasted even if you have good things to say. Let people choose if and when they want advice. If they aren’t looking to you for counsel, forcing the issue will not help. If someone does seek you out, then you can feel confident that they are genuinely interested. If you do offer advice, be honest about your limits, and never expect someone to trust only your perspective.
In Pirkei Avot 6:6 we find a list of forty-eight ways to acquire Torah. One of them is bearing a burden with a friend, noseh ba’ol im chavero. You can’t take away someone else’s burden, but you can carry it with them so that they are not alone. When you do this, you will acquire Torah for yourself.
If we focus our energy in a healthy direction instead of pushing advice on people, we’ll avoid straining relationships, shutting down communication, and making already difficult circumstances harder. Our empathy will grow, and we will be better equipped to follow in the footsteps of our Master Yeshua, bringing healing to a suffering world.