CAN YOU TOP THIS?
Those of us old enough to remember the “Golden Age of Radio” in the middle to late 1940s might recall a long running, weekly show titled, “Can You Top This?” It contained jokes on a variety of topics, told by series regulars Harry Hershfield, Joe Laurie, Jr. and “Senator” Ed Ford.
On the syndicated show, listeners sent in jokes and the panel had to get equal or better laughs from the studio audience with their own gags on the same topic. In the 1950s, the show evolved into a syndicated television remake. The TV panelists included Morey Amsterdam, Jack Carter and Richard Dawson.
I pride myself on being a good joke teller. Usually, when another competent jokester relates a gag to me it triggers a similar story in my mind and the two of us often can regale each other for several minutes in a “Can-You-Top-This?” format. Telling jokes is one thing. But really listening to the other person and entering into his or her concern is another. The reason I mention this old game show is that many of us are “programmed” to respond to a problem told to us by trying to “top” the story or event. Here’s a couple of examples:
Let us suppose you are experiencing car trouble. You don’t know what is wrong, for sure, but the vehicle is not driving the way it used to. You worry that it might be the transmission or possibly something wrong with the shift mechanism or gearbox. In your anxiety about it you relate to a friend that your car is not running properly when it slows down and once it stalled in the middle of a busy intersection. But the friend responds by telling you how pleased he is with the way his car has been running of late. He tells you that, initially, he was concerned he may not have gotten a good deal on his car because its low price was intended to conceal a major mechanical problem. All of a sudden, the “car talk” you initiated has shifted gears to a discussion of your friend’s vehicle.
Another response often given by the person who hears about your troubles is to “top” your story with a tale about someone who really had a horrible experience when, for example, his car broke down on a major expressway during rush-hour.
In both cases, you are left feeling frustrated that your friend failed to acknowledge or emphasize with your concerns by changing the conversation to the topic of his car or minimized your problem by relating a story about someone who had a more perplexing plight! Sound familiar?
What you wanted to hear from your friend that might have helped your situation was information about a similar so-called transmission problem he or someone else had—-and what he or she did about it—-or the name of a good mechanic who could be trusted to do any repair work necessary at a fair price. The very least the friend could have done for you was just listen and maybe offer any assistance needed, such as a ride to work or the loan of a car.
Shortly after experiencing the above situation when a friend replied to my concerns about a problem with his own self-satisfied set of circumstances, I caught myself doing the same thing after someone told their troubles to me! Why do we do this? Maybe a psychiatrist could supply the answers.
Not having an analyst readily available at the moment, however, I will take a shot at it myself.
I guess it boils down to the fact we often don’t know what to do for a troubled friend. Perhaps we don’t have enough expertise on the situation to solve the problem, so we try to minimize the difficulty by telling a tale that is grandiose. Maybe, we hope, the more bazaar complication will make our friend’s difficulty seem slight. Or, regrettably, perhaps we just don’t want to get involved. We have enough problems of our own with which to deal and we don’t need to add the friend’s concern to our list.
We know, of course, this is not how Jesus lived when He was on earth. He drove out unclean spirits (Mk 1:23-26), cured Simon’s mother-in-law and healed the sick outside her door (Mk 1:29-34), cleansed a leper (Mk 1:40-42), healed a paralytic (Mk 2:1-12) and cured a man with a withered hand on the Sabbath (Mk 3:1-6), to name but a few of the times in just three chapters of Mark’s Gospel where Jesus reached out to someone who was hurting. Jesus’ mercy on the problems of others was boundless. “He had cured many and, as a result, those who had diseases were pressing upon him to touch him” (Mk 3:10).
We don’t have to be an expert in medicine, machinery or mathematics to be of service and “touch” someone who tells their troubles to us. All we really need to do is listen, to be merciful as Jesus is. Again, I am no expert psycho-analyst, but I bet most of the time we can help a troubled friend by just being a good listener and letting the other person “ventilate” for a few minutes. If we can give a worthwhile response without trying to “top” their tale, then we should do so.
Otherwise, it is best to just listen intently, like many of us used to do when we tuned our radio to our favorite drama and comedy-variety shows, and stared at the AM dial to take in every word.
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