Stars in the black, black night

I had a hard December, following a strong of hard months, years. I finally had a two day reprieve, and in the space I had to breathe, I said in my head,

“That was hard.”

And instantly was the response, one part words I have said over and over to my patients and all the parts from God,

“Yes. It was supposed to be hard. If it’s not hard, then you don’t get stronger; and then it is a waste of time.”

It gave me a little hope, a very little hope. That maybe it wasn’t for nothing, that maybe it would bear fruit, that maybe it wasn’t pointless suffering, that maybe there was a plan.

But in my two day reprieve, I also saw the thumb screws being tightened down on someone I care for, and to the best of my knowledge, has a ways to go before she has a reprieve. And I know of no way to help her.

And I am still left with that hole. What’s the point? What for? Why all the pain for no reason? People talk about alleviating the suffering of mankind, but the true suffering of mankind is the suffering that cannot be relieved.

It is technically and philosophically easy to say that suffering has a purpose. But when you are in suffering, it is far harder—in part because you don’t get the suffering and the fruit at the same time. When the fruit comes, even if it is sweet or sustaining, it comes long after the bitterness and pain. There’s no spoonful of sugar to help the medicine go down; there’s just begging for mercy.

So what do you do when someone is begging for mercy beside you? The obvious answer is beg along side of them — for mercy for you both. But there is also a reason we all tend to ask for “practical implications.” There are lists out there for what to do when people are going through hard times. . .being there, “holding space,” offering practical solutions of what you could do to help, not avoiding conversations about the thing, etc. And sometimes those lists are helpful, and sometimes they just shine the light on the other problem: it hurts us to see others suffering, and we would like to know how to alleviate  our own distress. Sitting quietly with someone while they sob does very little to comfort us.

When you walk on the other side of the road, it is mostly to protect you from the mess of human suffering. It is easier to bless, be warm and filled, than to drink down suffering with others. Because sometimes, it’s not even about not wanting to “do” something about it, or physical risk or sacrifice. It’s the internal pain of confronting the fact there is un-savable pain and suffering in this world: it’s broken, it sucks, and there is nothing you can do to fix it. Looking away feels preferable.

The saving that we want is for more than just the current moment; we want the world to be fixed such that there is no longer meaningless, pointless, stupid suffering. Not just her. Her and her and him and everyone. But when God gives justice and judgement, He also gives grace and blessing. And though the world has been judged, and cries out for redemption, still He sends blessing: rain, sun, food. And, I hope I am not too rash in suggesting, His people to carry His light, and to serve as beacons for people to find, not the relief from the suffering they are currently in, but rather the suffering that is yet to come. Do not, He says, put your light under a basket, safe and protected and secure, but bring it out into the darkness.

The very reason that we most want to look away is the very reason we must move closer to suffering.

And the practical application of that, if I may, is that when we know why we must do what we must do, and who sends us to do it, we have greater courage and strength and comfort to carry out the hard and unpleasant tasks that need to be done. I am moving toward this person and this suffering, not because I have the answers, can fix things, know what I’m doing, am more capable than they are, or like suffering. But because God said, “You have My light, and I am sending you into this world, and you need to trust that I will have My light be seen in you. I’m at work and will be at work, and I told you that, so you need to believe it.”

I think I just said a lot of stupid words to a person I don’t think I can help, who has some heavy burden laid on her that she cannot/will not even explain. Her suffering is so palpable it makes my heart hurt, like a physical sensation inside of my chest, and there is nothing, nothing, nothing I can do. If my confidence is in me doing the right thing, this is a hopeless situation.

God have mercy; God stay true to Your promise to put Your light into Your people as You send them into the world, and let me be faithful to Your spirit. There is no hope unless You are the one at work; and let me find comfort in knowing Your work is being accomplished — in me, through me, beside me, around me, and toward the world. Bless us still.

You and your soul

Do you think I’m a good judge of character?

I do.

I don’t know really how we can know such things about ourselves. But especially since I’ve gotten into a career where I see so very many different kinds of people, from all different walks of life, I feel like I can get a pretty good measure of a person by a first impression. Not a complete dossier, of course. But I’ve had the hair on the back of my neck rise up in wordless warning, with no tangible reason for it. I’ve pried recalcitrant people out of their shells. And I’ve been perfectly at ease around people that society would have you to believe ought to be scorned.

But you really do have to trust me as a judge of character, at least to a certain point. Because sometimes there are just random things that happen to me, where if you trust my sense of character, are just are just a really good story. And if you don’t, the whole story goes from novel-worthy to really kind of skeevy and a little unsettling.

So I went for a walk. I didn’t even really want to, but when I have too many emotions, I need to walk. Preferably over lots of hills. It’s sort of like getting mad and hitting things, except without the violence. And of course there’s no hills here, but still I’m charging down the sidewalk, storming around the park. And some random dude is like, “Hi!”

Seriously? He looks like a college aged guy, out walking himself.

“Do you like to talk while you walk or think to yourself?”

Well, I inform him apologetically, I like to think to myself. Walking is how I sort through the day and get my emotions out.

It turns out it wasn’t really a question, because he tags along anyhow. So earnest about being encouraging and trying to ask me what’s on my mind and cheer me on through it. And if I am a terrible judge of character, then he is just rude and annoying and won’t get a hint. But in my judge of character, he is just pretty crazy, and I kind of just want to laugh at him. He is strange in his own way, but not ill-intentioned.

So I tell him about missing home, about being far from anyone who knows me. And he admits he feels the same way, even though he grew up here. He asks me how many siblings I have, and then he asks me how many have died. And the whole conversation is this strange mix of serious and surreal. He insists on walking on the the side closer to the road, so he’d be hit first. He complains his friends have become cops and he can’t talk to them anymore. He confesses several of his siblings have died and his uncle committed suicide. He chivalrously steps between me and annoying barking dog. He tries to slow me down from walking too fast, talking too fast–he’s the one with the energy drink. He complains that people are suspicious of everyone now, even people walking you home.

And I just want to laugh. It’s broad daylight on a busy street. We’re almost to my residence. There is nothing he can take from me. If I am any judge of character, dude has had a rough, sad life and is tired of people pretending they can’t see each other. Tired of people not even trying to be kind. Maybe–maybe–he would like tears from me and the chance to comfort me like a hero. But I already know he won’t get that, and I think he can tell that’s not who I am. But still he will walk me home, so I won’t get run over by a car. And we continue our random and bizarre conversation, about chickens and goats, and brothers who have too much money and won’t talk to you anymore and would you just slow down and chill out.

And then I say, I’m sorry to end our conversation, but this is the house I’m staying at. So he gives me a casual hug good-bye, and I hug him back. Because this is all so silly. And we both know it. And so he stops and turns,–no, wait–and puts the crowning finish on it all by kissing my hand goodbye. And I would really laugh at him, if he didn’t already know he was being silly, but he already knows. So we wave good-bye as random friends, and I go into the house and he keeps walking off toward the college.

We are still sad. But we can still smile.

There is no reason for it, for any of it. For the heartache of this world and it’s loneliness and it’s brokenness. For the walking and talking with strangers. For walking on the left. But we don’t have to hurt each other, either. We can still be polite. We can still be kind. And sometimes the kindest thing we can do is not pull back. To not be offended by the broken offerings of kindness, to not refuse that a person could have any worth to offer you anything.

You see me walking with a burden, and I–I see you walking with a burden. And we are both already broken enough, and don’t need any more breaking. So kiss my hand; I’ll not pull away. Go in peace, you and your soul.

Roll with it

I think this year I am going to have to learn–or continue to learn–or learn better–about “rolling with it.” Not “frantically trying to keep up.” Not “doing what I have to do.” Not “letting the day live me.” Rolling with it.

Today was the first day of online classes, and hypothetically, I was going to get up early and pound out a lot of work. Because the idea is to get so far ahead in my online classes that once I’m doing that by the time all of my classes start, I won’t be rushing around and stressing.

Instead, I was still out of sorts from a giant move-your-grandparents operation over the weekend, and instead of dutifully doing homework all afternoon, I spent it tearing through my grandparents garage being nagged and guilted and complained at by my grandfather with Alzhiemer’s who kept insisting it didn’t matter if I didn’t find his medication, he just needed his computers.

So my plans for the day failed. By extension, I feel like I’ve failed the whole semester, and possibly ruined and future education plans. Yes, I am very tired.

But I also realize that I didn’t fail. I didn’t ruin. What is life, if it’s not giving yourself a tension headache while caring for your grandparents? And did I not just resolve that I was going to learn how to rest and take care of myself? Why shouldn’t I be tired after a marathon moving weekend?

Grandma and Grandpa are now 10 minutes away, practically neighbors. They will be wildly unpredictable in their need for help. I won’t have control–through this semester, through these wild, crazy changes I hope will take place over the summer. What can I do but enjoy the ride?

That sounds like fun, but it doesn’t come naturally. It doesn’t come naturally to let go. It doesn’t feel natural to laugh through the pain. The tension headache is normal. . .expected. Rolling with it. . .the good intentions are gone in five minutes. What’s the point?

The point is, God loves me, and pours out His love through me, and that is what I need to not lose sight of. Not even with nagging, mentally ill grandparents. Not even with headaches and ruined plans. He goes before me. . .He comes behind me. . .He’s all around me. Open my eyes, that I may see. . .

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.

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.