Truth: Life Is Messy

“Self-help” abounds. It drives me nuts.

Not because I don’t think that we should take responsibility for ourselves, but because almost all of the purported self-help is far too sloppy to be helpful. Cute articles with catchy titles, and slick lists of x-numbers of “easy” ways/steps to win the world–it’s kind of infuriating.

Because its like telling some how to change light switch plates, or paint or room or–for the very daring and committed!!–patch a hole in the dry wall–when what really needs to be done is to tear everything down to complete rubble and re-evaluate what a house and a home really is. There are very few people who actually want to tackle head on the big scary questions of “what life is about”. About life and death. About that fact that our past shapes our present and our present shapes our future.

Everyone has these questions. I don’t care how adorable her clothes are and how perfect her nails and how cute her hair cut–part of being human is wondering why we’re human and what that means. Some of us stuff those questions down deeper than others, try to smoother them harder than others, and some of us recognize that they’re there but try to fix the problem with Spackle and paint. But very few people want to lean over the edge and count how many lions are in the den. It makes those of us who are counting wonder if we’re all alone and why no one else is talking about the lions–but no one really escapes the reality that they’re there.

Fix-it lists and articles are all avoiding the fact that life is just to messy to be contained in dietary advice and “green” methods of housecleaning. It can’t be fixed with a one size fits all, and it certainly isn’t easy, no matter how you want to abuse that word. If it were easy, we’d all be doing it by now, not still wistfully reading about it and wondering why we can’t get our act together. Self-help instruction also implies that it’s our fault–that anyone can and should “take control” of their own life. Like if we just consciously decide what success is, and set our energies on it, well, duh: we’ll get what we want.

Realities are much more unordered. We don’t really know what we want, but we pick something so as to not seem directionless. Later, we decide we didn’t really want that, or perhaps changed our mind–or something changes that totally devastates our world view and what we thought was important. Or we think we want something, but the more we pursue it, the more meaningless it becomes. And in the meantime, the cat barfed over your favorite shoes, the car repair bill was six times more expensive than you thought it would be, and your mom was just diagnosed with cancer. Go zen that. Perky ponytails and green “de-tox” drinks aren’t going to save you now, or give you any direction. The bills still have to paid, the barf still stinks, and you can’t save your mom. Yay, control over the direction of your life.

Some people say, “no, no! It’s about you and your response, not the physical realities!” And I’m like, “Mind, meet body. Body, meet mind.” They are together, intertwined, and cannot be divorced from each other. No one is going to feel blissful watching their loved ones suffer. No one is going to be happy realizing they are out of money and out of options. And if there are fortifications that can be made to ameliorate these sufferings, it’s not five easy steps and someone else’s mantra. It’s not going to be avoiding the hard questions by studying laundry detergent recipes and giving up donuts.

It’s just that. . .we all want the hard questions answered, and no one can do it for us. There is no self-help article that can slog through the trenches for you. No one out there who can take a long look inside of you except yourself. When the narrator yells, “PLOT TWIST!” and all you can think is, “well, crap, now what?” nobody gets to answer that question except you. That’s both the beauty and the curse of being alive, and the chintzy self-help degrades both halves of that–the true torment and the equally true privilege, drowning in societal fads and an unrelenting whisper that if you just wanted it badly enough, tried hard enough, you could be a different person.

Look away, look away, look away. . .

Letters. . .

Dear God,

I have, literally, no idea what you are doing. Like, none. Every time I think maybe I understand what direction you’re headed, I find out I’m wrong.


Your Confused Daughter

Understanding is not the pre-requisite that many people seem to think it is.

Dear God,

People say it’s impossible to screw up your plan. Is that true? Because this seems pretty momentous to me, and if I’m totally messed up, I think the rest of my life will be, too.


The Cowardly Lion

Wait, you mean this life? This tiny, fleeting thing? That’s what you’re worried about?

Dear God,

Is it wrong to want to be able to enjoy life? It’s not that I’m scared of working hard; it’s just that I don’t want to be sad and miserable all the time. Is it okay to just have a good time?


A Recovering (hah!) Perfectionist

What’s stopping you?

Dear God,

Some people act like worrying about money is a really bad thing, but then other people act like keeping our “house” perfectly in order and controlled and planned is the only holy thing to do, because otherwise we’re being bad stewards. Am I being a bad steward if I don’t know how the money is going to work out?


I Didn’t Win the Lottery Yet

It’s all mine even if it doesn’t look like it’s all yours.

Dear God,

Am I throwing away my life by taking a chance on something I don’t understand, or would I be throwing away my life by staying safe?


I Don’t Want to Waste This Thing

None of my followers are safe in the world, but all of them are safe in me.

Dear God,

How am I supposed to follow you if I have no idea where you are?



Keep looking.

Dear God,

Why don’t you have an email address? Because I keep checking my email looking for answers, and I’m not getting any.


Email for teh Win

Maybe you’re asking the wrong questions.

Dear God,

You know what? Some days I doubt my ability to even be a human. What am I doing here being a human if I can’t even do a reasonable job at that?


Feeling Defective

I made you a human. I define what a human even is.

Dear God,

I know you’re all-powerful and everything, but then how come we don’t see miracles all the time?


Waiting for the Explosion

Maybe you aren’t watching.

Dear God,

Everyone gives these very pat, trite little answers about you, and try to simplify you down to one concept or idea. They aren’t very satisfying, but I need answers.


Still Confused.

You do?

Dear God,

What if I screw up?


At the Precipice

I’ll save you.

Dear God,

Why don’t you save now?


Still Scared.

‘Now’ is a very interesting concept. . .

Dear God,

Can you at least tell me if I’m headed in the right direction?


Lost with a Really Crappy Map

You’re writing to me; so, yes.

How do you tell the story?

I am rather proud.

I hate limitations.

I carry around the burden of guilt.

I can be condescending. You don’t have to be perfect, but I am better than that, so I have to keep trying.

What is curious to me is how infrequently I notice these things about myself. Somehow, the PROBLEM is that I likely have a stress fracture in my foot, may have a vitamin D deficiency, am probably fighting off some sort of virus, and no matter how you cut it I need rest. I don’t see the PROBLEM in being that I have trouble admitting that I can’t just declare a list of things to do, and therefore accomplish it. I don’t see the PROBLEM in being that I feel guilty to rest, especially when “work” remains undone. I don’t see the PROBLEM in that I want to dot every “i” and cross every “t” in my schoolwork, even while I counsel other people that they shouldn’t be so hard on themselves.

I was thinking about it today, because today was a failure. I got up–well, sort of. I woke up miserable and not wanting to engage the world and feeling sickish and cold. So instead of eating my healthy, righteous oatmeal that I normally eat 5 days a week, I “bribed myself into existence” with candy-cereal. Today, I was supposed to finish a mid-term project, spear-head our team project, post to discussions, do chemistry homework, and do lots of assigned reading. Plus sweep the floor, and make bread.

Well, I made an attempt at the chemistry. I stared stupidly at review material, like it was written in ancient Greek with Egyptian hieroglyphics. I did not make it very far. I gave up on school work. I tried to clean my room, and got as far as dusting a book case. I attempted to work on music practice, but even the easy songs I had memorized didn’t seem to work. I attempted to make myself lunch. I stared at computer screen for a while, trying to think coherently about seeds for a garden.

I finally–finally!–“gave up.” I went upstairs to my bed, convinced our introverted cat she wanted to snuggle with me, and spent several hours in bed under the covers with a warm cat and a book that was totally unrelated to school work. And I said to myself, “Oh, well, today is a wash. Hopefully tomorrow will be better. I will be full of energy and my mind will be clear. And maybe my foot won’t hurt so much.”

But what made the day “fail”? My desire to be in control and all powerful and perfect, mostly and only. I didn’t get to do what I thought I was going to do. I didn’t get to be impervious to weakness. I had limitations I couldn’t push through. And I felt guilty that I couldn’t rise above it all–and do what I wanted to accomplish, and stop being mopey about a hurting foot, and never feel like my brain was full of static.

I defined my success wrong, and I defined my problems wrong, and I defined my day wrong.

Today I ate sweet chocolate-peanut butter breakfast. It was yummy. I sang a few songs in a way I never would have been able to a year ago before singing lessons. I looked at beautiful pictures of flowers, especially sweet peas. I snuggled for hours with a cat, who clearly has no guilt about resting, and wondered about cats and humans and God. I read a book that put a smile on my lips instead of a furrow in my brow. I was able to rest my foot, and consider about how resistant I am to resting that maybe God sent a broken bone to me to remind me to stop trying. And then I ate an awesome supper, surrounded by more people who love me fiercely than many people ever know in their whole lives.

I think maybe today wasn’t a wash. I think maybe today was a gift. I think maybe I should stop trying to value days by measuring what I “accomplished” in them, and I should start looking at two see the little presents snuggled in the corners.

It’s tempting to say, “It’s not like laying in bed with a cat and a book are more important than school work!” But who says? Do you know how life draining I have been finding my school work? And how reviving the cat and the book were? Maybe the point really is that I am much more valuable than what I “accomplish”. And maybe it doesn’t matter what I think is more valuable; maybe God is just plain old right in His assertion that the cat and blankets and book and rest were, truly, much more valuable than a doomed school team project, regardless of what I say. Maybe I need to stop pursuing telling God what is or was supposed to happen, and  start valuing the things He says are supposed to happen. Like an un-snuggly cat snuggling for hours. Isn’t that a minor miracle right there?

And also like feet that hurt. I’m still not sure how to accept this as a gift, or accept it graciously, or plain old accept it. I want to fight it, throw it off by my own power. I don’t understand the reason why I’m limping, and I want it to STOP. But it was given to me. And I’m pretty sure it will be there tomorrow. What do broken feet say?

What do sleeping cats say?

What does chocolate peanut butter cereal say?

And what will waking up tomorrow at 6am say?

I am certain there are things being said. I just think I’m talking past God, the way some of my classmates tell me they agree with me and then in the same post state the exact opposite of what I just said. We’re both there, but the communication thing is not happening. I need help hearing; receiving; accepting; valuing; believing. There is more going on than I am aware of, and only sometimes do I glimpse that.


  • Stop trying. Any thought I have to myself that starts with “I’ve tried” or “I’m trying” or any day where my goal is to “try”–well, for me anyway, it needs to stop. Stop trying, stop thinking it depends on me, stop wearing myself out on what I can’t do anyway. “Try” needs to be replaced with “rest,” with “trust,” with riding along with what God is already doing, not trying to haul God along. Trying is exhausting, and accomplishes nothing. Go with it.
  • That doesn’t matter. There is so much that doesn’t matter. Money. To-do lists. Being right. Having it figured out. Usually, I’m anxious about stuff that matters. There’s not so very often in my life (thank God!) where I really am worried about matters of life and death, about real pain and suffering, or about rending spiritual questions. I’m mostly worried about stuff that doesn’t matter.
  • Let go. Most of the time, it isn’t burdens placed on me. It’s stuff I’ve picked up on my own accord, that I don’t need; I need to learn to let it go. Expectations. Standards. Goals. Figuring it out. It’s not important to hold on to it; it’s important to let go of it.
  • It might not be as bad as you think it is. Yes, really. I don’t think God decides to check out while I’m in the middle of studying for school; I think I stop looking for Him. I wonder sometimes why that is. I think maybe I call some things pointless more because I’m not really looking for the point. I just don’t like something and complain about it, without ever even trying to find a point or trying to find God in it.
  • “What if’s” go in two directions. “What if everything goes wrong?” is a valid question; but so is “What if everything goes right?” Neither one is really all that likely; usually some things go wrong and some things go right. I do pretty good at giving the “what if things go wrong?” question a work out, but I’m pretty lousy about evening out that equation.
  • Be thankful for specific things. This is hard to practice, but can be surprisingly eye-opening. I read somewhere, can’t remember where now, about the idea that when we give thanks for our food, it often seems like it’s not important enough and so we start throwing a bunch of other stuff into the prayer just to kind of beef it out–as though being thankful for food wasn’t enough. I’ve started considering actually ingredients, which seems really silly–but has also really humbled me. We had tomatoes for supper. Real, true tomatoes, not processed in anyway–in the middle of January. Is this not a miracle? Is this not special? Huh. The things I’ve taken for granted.
  • All you have is now. All you need is now. How I worry over the tomorrows! Right here, right now–what is needed? Not much. I wish worrying was productive, because I do so stinkin’ much of it, I would be a whirl-wind of efficiency if it actually accomplished something. Strangely, it doesn’t.
  • He is here. I’m the one who’s loud and whiny like a two year old, not Him; so I’m usually the one making more noise. That doesn’t mean He isn’t there. Sometimes it just means I need to stop paying attention to me, and start paying attention to Him.
  • Respect what has been given to you. Like your body: there’s nothings stupid about things like taking care of my body–by resting, by doing nothing, by eating right, by trying out that oatmeal face mask. Same thing with skills and interests: they’ve been given to me. They’re a gift. I need to learn to respect and value that, not take it for granted or devalue it.
  • He gives: you have to receive. I have been thinking about this a lot. If I’m worrying about something, I’m essentially declining the gift of peace. He’s taken care of everything. If I accept that as true, I can have the peace He offers. When I worry, it’s because I’m not accepting what He’s extending–the assurance that it doesn’t depend on me. Focusing on what I’m holding onto in my hands keeps me from looking at what He’s holding out for me.
  • Rest is sacred. God started that, not me. Right from the very, very beginning. I often feel guilty for resting, and I don’t know why. It just feels like there’s so much to do, and if I was a good person, I’d be doing it! But I think I have to learn that God is happier when I rest, and let everything else fall to the wayside. Rest is more important.
  • If God is happy, why aren’t you? I often times get unhappy about how things are going, or how I perceive things to be going, or the things that make me anxious. . .but I usually get the feeling God isn’t the slightest bit upset. If He isn’t, why am I? Instead of trying to convince God there’s a good reason to Not Be Happy, maybe I should be trying to take His lead, and be happy. Maybe He has a better idea of how the cards are going to play out–that sneaky insider knowledge can make all the difference!

Also, I’m sure, many other things. But these are some things that I think I need help remembering, and sometimes writing things down helps me to remember them better.

Merry Chirstmas!

I’m enjoying saying that this year. I’m just enjoying having holiday. I’m enjoying the snow, and the starlight, and the Christmas cards I’m sending out way too late.

I enjoyed the bath I took this morning. Who takes baths any more? I think we still should take baths; they’re better than showers.

I enjoyed watching Handel’s Messiah being performed.

I enjoy feeding ducks out of my hands

I enjoyed spending the whole afternoon doing nothing but hanging out and talking with my friend.

And I am even enjoying this pause as the new year and the old year hang in balance, and I realize that all I am waiting for is to find more things to wonder at. Wonder is  a lovely thing; sometimes it visits winter-land, in all it’s glory. God is good.

Physician, Heal Thyself

“You’re going through a lot. . .remember to take care of yourself!”

Um, yeah. No. It doesn’t work that way.

What this phrase, this admonishment, assumes is that you are a perpetual motion machine. Or God. Same thing.

It takes serious amounts of energy to take care of anyone or anything. You are already significantly drained of energy. Whenceforth comes this supposed ability to haul yourself up by your boot straps?

Take care of yourself, take care of yourself, take care of yourself.

I keep hearing this over and over and over again, and it makes me feel guilty. Yeah, I should. The fact that I’m stretched thin and exhausted is my fault. If I was a responsible person who knew how to take care of herself, I wouldn’t be in this position. I need to learn to be a better person, so I can take care of myself, so people won’t be burdened by how I act when I’m in over my head.

Then I was like, wait. How the heck do you take care of yourself? Nobody could tell me that. Just that I had to do it, or I would burn-out. Just, you know, take care of yourself. Some people tried to take the physical aspect of it: eat, sleep, exercise. This approach had two problems. One: myself is more than my body, and my cares, concerns, and needs cannot be fulfilled by attending to by body alone. And Two: do you realize how much it takes out of you to take care of your body? It’s a freaking chicken-or-the-egg situation. Oh, and Three? What makes you think I have control over any of that?

After a bad bout of anxiety leading to some physical symptoms I didn’t care to repeat, I decided that it was Time To Take Care Of Myself. I worked hard at exercising almost every day, at making sure I was eating more fruits and vegetables, and at going to bed at a Reasonable Time. My body kinda felt a little better, but it wasn’t touching anything else. Spending so much time on Eat, Sleep, Exercise was turning me into an automaton–I had thoughts and feelings and ideas I never got a chance to touch, because I was spending all my free time Eating, Sleeping, and Exercising.

The fall-out was that I started having insomnia. Waking up in the middle of the night, still exhausted and wishing I could be sleeping, just so that my mind could have some time run. I wasn’t anxious. I didn’t know why I was waking up. The things that came to my mind were just idle thoughts, but apparently you have to have time to have idle thoughts.

The insomnia did not get better. The insomnia got worse. Falling asleep became a scary, daring attempt. This girl who used to be able to fall asleep within any 5 consecutive horizontal minutes spent TWO HOURS, too tired to stand straight, with her mind chugging and chugging over “nothingness.” This does bad, bad things to homeostasis. When I get that tired, it starts making me feel nauseous, and the thought of putting anything in my mouth repulsive.

The Eat, Sleep, Exercise thing was totally blown to smithereens, by . . .Eating, Sleeping, and Exercising? I couldn’t put enough in it to keep going. All systems were shutting down. My brain was now demanding (and acquiring de facto by striking) time to sit and not function. And the inside of me was still pretty raw, too.

You know, there are just some things that you just cannot do for yourself. You cannot, for example, give yourself a good hug or snuggle. You cannot engage yourself in a really good conversation that gives you new things to think about or new perspectives. You can’t really comfort yourself.

But somehow, we’re told we should be taking care of ourselves. Maybe that’s just not a thing we can do, unless we are God: Be self-sustaining. Need no one. Got it all under control ourselves. I can take care of myself, you know.


No, you can’t.

You aren’t a perpetual motion machine. You can’t create more energy than you expend. You do not have the functional capability to take care of yourself. No one does. We have different needs and we express it differently, but we all need help. We may be very verbal about needing help, or we may be really bad at expressing it. We may try to go find help at the slightest hint of need, or we might have a really hard time accepting help even when it’s freely offered. But none of us is a self-sustained, self-contained, endless capacity individual.

Even Jesus, after He spent 40 days and 40 nights in the wilderness. God didn’t say, “Hey, Jesus, you’ve been through a lot. Take care of yourself, okay?” No, God sent His ministering angels to go take care of Jesus. Humanity it is very finite, and Jesus was embodied in humanity. He needed help.

“I hope you feel better soon,” says that “I know there isn’t anything I can do to help you right now, but I hope you don’t have to keep on suffering.” There’s something different about “take care of yourself.” “Take care of yourself” says, “That’s your job and your responsibility. I don’t need to help you in your need; you need to get your act together.” “Take care of yourself” is offered as though it is an expression of empathy or compassion, but it’s really not. It’s an act of washing one’s hands of the situation. “So-and-so really needs to learn how to take better care of herself,” is not an expression of compassion. It’s an act of carefully crossing the street and passing by on the other side. You’re in an icky situation, and you’re on your own, ’cause I’m not touching that.

Peeps, this isn’t about blaming everyone else for you being miserable, and wallowing in the role of being a victim and having no one there to help you. It’s about recognizing that you have no right to be ashamed for asking for help, and that you have a duty to help where you can. Perhaps Paul said it best in 2 Corinthians 8: 13 For I do not mean that others should be eased and you burdened; 14 but by an equality, that now at this time your abundance may supply their lack, that their abundance also may supply your lack—that there may be equality. 15 As it is written, “He who gathered much had nothing left over, and he who gathered little had no lack.”

You can’t do it on your own. You need to help. And you need to help others. And maybe where they have a need is where you still have something left to give, and where you have a need is what they still have an abundance in.

In the midst of my falling to pieces and being unable to sleep, I could hear the voice of my old Bio teacher in the halls. He sounded discouraged. He sounded like he was up against a lot. I felt like I could barely walk in a straight line, but I could still send him and email, telling him what an impression he made on me as his student. I didn’t have much to give, but I could at least do that. In needing help, there is a recognition that others do, too. This isn’t about the world revolving around you; this is about the world being full of finite, struggling people, of which you are one.

I cannot take care of myself. Truth be told, I do not even yet know how to ask for help, or what kind of help I need. But I have at least figured out this much: it’s silly for me to think that I’m responsible for “taking care of myself,” any more than it is my responsibility to defy gravity, entropy, the laws of conservation, or even my responsibility to deny my own humanity. I am a human, and I cannot do it all, and I’m not supposed to be able to.

You aren’t, either.  You have enough going on without feeling needlessly guilty that “you’re going all to pieces” because you “just aren’t strong enough.” We’re in a world that we do not, cannot control. We will never be on top of it all, and we will always be struggling. Sometimes, you won’t be able to go any further without someone reaching down to help, or someone behind you giving you that boost.

And while you search for that next handhold, that next little ledge your toes can find some purchase on–remember the others. Remember to give that little push; remember to call some encouragement to those trying to find their own path. Remember that it’s not your responsibility to do it all yourself and never ask for help–and remember that sometimes, it’s really, really hard to ask for help; so don’t wait until they ask. Reach out.

Don’t tell them to take care of themselves; don’t add to them one more responsibility, one more duty to attend to. Tell them what they’ve already done. Tell them what they’ve already accomplished. Tell them, with words or without, that you aren’t going to ignore them through this hard time, because you’ve already got your own hands full. You might not have much to offer, but that’s okay; a few drops of water are pretty valuable in the middle of the Sahara.

Just don’t be surprised or angry or frustrated or embarrassed to say, yourself, “Hey, a little help here! I could really use some ministering angels!” You’re in good company.

Sometimes I See You

In real life, I am pretty hesitant to talk about the things that I think I do well at; I’m always waiting for someone to jump out accusing me of being full of myself, self-absorbed, an inflated view of myself and my abilities and the effect I have on people. But there are some things that I think I do very well, and here I boast.

I used to work as a physical therapist assistant, before I returned to school full time. Do you know what I miss? I miss getting the wild animals to eat out of my hand. I had recalcitrant people–oh, they gave me new meaning for that word. I had this one guy who would literally pretend to sleep in the waiting room, just to avoid eye contact with anyone else. He worked in a factory, and I had it on good authority that he was even more withdrawn than the other reclusive workers, opening up to no one. I had him talking about his grandkids.

Another young man, probably just older than me, looked as though he sucked on lemons and had entirely forgotten how to smile and that he would trust no one or no thing and you couldn’t make him happy. I chiseled a smile out of him in the first 30 minutes, a smile he tried to hold in as though it didn’t belong on his face. But after that I got all sorts of expressions from him. I earned trust from him that I didn’t think would ever be possible.

I sparred with grouchy and belligerent men, who were intent on testing your mettle, and wanted to see what you would do under pressure. I worked with a guy who spent a whole half-hour complaining behind my back about how he didn’t want to be treated by me, and finished his course of therapy by telling me I did “a hell of a good job,” and meant it.

I worked with people who were depressed, and coaxed life back into them. I work with people who were unmotivated and didn’t know how to work, and convinced them to earn their healing. I worked with women who were so discouraged they were crying, fearful they’d never be able to function, and helped them through to the other side. I got to see people achieve their goals–and more than achieve them, surpass them. I challenged, I comforted, I encouraged, I listened–and I got to see the results. It was exhausting–and exhilarating.

The break from the emotional exhaustion was good, at first, but I’ve soon begun to miss it. People all over the world are hungry for a few words of hope and comfort and encouragement, and I am literally sitting on my bum at a desk? What it is wrong with this picture? The sparking of human life was what I was good at, and now I’m doodling in the margins of my notebook, wondering how I’ll every be able to remember the charges of polyatomic atoms and random solubility rules.

So when the chance presented itself to being some tutoring, I took it. I would teach, I would encourage, their grades would turn around–instant gratification! I admit I had visions colored with past experiences–all successful, some stunningly so. What I found instead was sadness–situations I couldn’t fix. People who’s academic problems ran deeper than I had any confidence in an hour or two a week of tutoring to influence. People who were coming for help when it was too late to fix their grade, people who couldn’t or wouldn’t help themselves between tutoring sessions.

It kind of came to a head last Friday. This poor woman wants to pass the physics needed to become a physical therapist assistant, and I want to help her. But only a few of her homework problems are done, and it’s due in an hour. Why? Why didn’t you work on it before? There should only be a few areas you are stuck on, not begin at the beginning and explain it all! I told you that before!

I didn’t say that. I said, “How is your husband? Is he doing better?”

“No, he’s still in the hospital with the heart monitor on, and I hope he won’t get an infection at the hospital, and now my son has a fever, and my homework is due, and there’s so much I haven’t done!”

And my heart breaks for her, because I can’t fix this. If she doesn’t have the time to work on the homework, she won’t pass this course. If she can’t pass this course, her plans for future employment are dashed. I work with her as much as I can throughout the hour, but I know we can’t get it done in time for the deadline, and in all honesty, I don’t think she will pass this course. Am I even helping her, or just wasting her time with a false hope?

“It’s hard to learn when your mind isn’t here–it’s over there with your husband in the hospital and your son with a fever.”

“But I need to do this! My head has to be here!”

“Sometimes, we have to make choices that are hard to make. When you have to choose between being with your husband in the hospital and doing school work, well, it’s not a choice that you want to make. But in the grand scheme of things, your husband and children are much more important.”

“I want to chose both!”

I left the tutoring session feeling so worthless. I’m not going to see the look of delight in her eyes when she pulls out her next exam to show me her results. But even more troubling to me was the realization that it may not matter. Just the evening before, I’d heard of the unexpected death of one of my classmates who had gone through the physical therapist assistant program with me. And now, all I could think was that the next time I met with the student I was tutoring, she was going to tell me her husband had died and would likely have to pull out of the program to support her two young children.

I had wanted to be the one to turn that magic key and unlock the world of delight. I had wanted to to see the fruits of my labor, and see that they were good. I wanted to make everything all better, I wanted to feel that high of seeing the look of gratitude from success in someone’s face. This was exhausting without any of the exhilaration, and I felt like I never should have picked any tutoring up to begin with.

But somewhere in the back of my head, I thought I heard something else, too. A quiet voice reminding me that what we look for is the measurable results, the instant gratification. On that grounds, the entire experience feels like a fiasco. But maybe–maybe I wasn’t there to raise her physics grade. Maybe the whole reason I was there was so that someone would be there to tell her, “Your husband and children are more important than school.” Maybe she needs to hear that more than she needs to pull a good grade.

I’m not happy with that. I want my rush of I-made-everything-okay. I wanted to be able to display my prowess at getting inside of someone’s head, and bringing them through the finish line they thought they’d never reach. Having the privilege of telling someone that, in light of the frailty of human life, it was okay to chose to fail at physics–was not enough. Where is the hope in that? Where is the delight of success in that?

Then again, I didn’t start out this post talking about how totally awesome I was at physics. I started out this post talking about the human need to be valued, respected, cared for, drawn out, comforted, encouraged. I talked about how I learned, through my job, to not doubt my ability to see through the shrouds and barricades thrown up around peoples’ hearts. I learned to say what I believed they needed to hear in order to heal, putting aside the self-consciousness that comes from speaking to the core of a being you’ve only just barely met.

There are a hundred thousand people who can tutor physics. I do not think there are so many people who can see the relative worthlessness of their tutelage in light of what really does matter, who can come expecting to discuss specific heat and then realize what really needs to be addressed is human worth.

I wanted to be her hero of physics and education. In that, I feel like I’m failing. But it occurs to me that my whole encounter with her may be utterly beside the point of those few hurried words as I scrambled to get to my next class: In the grand scheme of things, your husband and children are much more important.

Did not that use the skills I’d learned? Did not that use the talent I secretly know is mine? But all I can see is her anguished face, saying, “I want to chose both!” I’m not enough to bring her both.

Sometimes, being able to get inside someone’s head means that you get to lead them to joy, and rejoice with them, and it is exhilarating. But sometimes it just means you climb in there and look around and see the fear and the darkness, and there is nothing you can do but hurt with them. It’s hard to remember that hurting with them has value–that hurting alone is a torment a thousand times worse than hurting with someone by your side. It’s hard to see the worth in acknowledging problems you can’t fix. But how often have you laid awake, wishing someone would acknowledge your struggles and fears and battles?

When that’s all you can do, it doesn’t seem like much of a gift. It doesn’t seem like a wonderful and clever gift to be able to get inside of the person full of hurt, and it doesn’t seem like you’re offering much of a gift to say, “wow, it’s full of hurt in here!” I can only hold out hope for that thin, quiet voice inside of me that said, “There. That was the first thing of any real value you’ve done for this person. Physics be damned; she has a husband to take care of.”