A few years ago, in a couple of different conversations, my friend Lisa told me about a book she was reading.
The title? Dying Well.
Lisa had stage IV breast cancer. Her doctor had told her the average patient with her disease survives 10 years and she’d been fighting for six. She’d also been told that she’d live as long as she kept responding to treatment, but that when she stopped responding, the end would come quickly.
Statistically, Lisa knew the odds weren’t in her favor. She must’ve had a sense that she didn’t have much time left, because although her treatment regimen was still working, she was getting ready to go. And reading Dying Well was critical to that process.
While I don’t recall much from our conversations about the book, I do remember thinking I should find a copy and read it. But I didn’t.
A few months later, right around Christmas, Lisa got sick. The end did come quickly, just as her doctor predicted. She died in February, two months before Easter.
Some time after that, I requested Dying Well from the library. I skimmed the table of contents and flipped through the pages. I could see why it had been helpful to Lisa, but I just couldn’t get into it. So I sent it back and forgot about it.
Looking back, I wish I’d read Dying Well when Lisa was still alive. Nobody’s criticizing me because I didn’t, but what if I had? How might that have encouraged Lisa as she neared the end of her life?
I can’t answer that question for her, but I can for myself. When someone reads a book that touches me, simply because it has touched me, it shows me that they care, that they want to know me better, that they want to understand me.
So for me, reading with those who read is real-life application of the Golden Rule, spelled out by Jesus in Luke 16:31: “Do to others as you would have them do to you.”
Most people find comfort in the pages of a book from time to time, but what would happen if we started thinking of reading as a way to comfort someone else?
I don’t know anyone who enjoys reading about death, abuse, cancer, depression, divorce or fill-in-the-blank. If these things don’t affect us, we’d rather pretend they don’t exist. But reading a book that has helped someone deal with a struggle we’ve not experienced can be extremely eye-opening.
When a friend mentions a meaningful book, we don’t have to proclaim that we’re going to get the book and read it. We can just do it, and bring it up later.
“I got that book you mentioned, you know, the one about …,” we can say. “I read it, and I couldn’t stop crying.” Or, “I read it, but I’m confused. Please tell me what it means to you.”
Every person wants to be known. This is tough enough in normal life, but it’s exponentially more complicated when someone is trudging through the valley of the shadow. If we haven’t been there, it’s hard to understand.
But while empathy is a true gift, comfort does come in other shapes and sizes.
For some, it looks a lot like spaghetti casserole, free childcare, or a two-hour phone conversation. For others, like me and perhaps you, comfort is rectangular, with an eye-catching cover and a couple hundred pages.
I missed my chance with Lisa. She doesn’t need to read books about dying anymore; she’s alive in the presence of the eternal Word.
But I’m still here. I still have conversations with hurting friends. From time to time, they mention books that are hitting right at the point of their need.
And that’s my cue.
Instead of smiling and wishing I had something profound to say, I will find those books, and I will read with those who read.