Years ago, I worked for a small company where my role was, in essence, to fix problems all day long. Whether the server was down, or the trade show displays were damaged, or the overseas division was on the phone in three languages, I was always resolving some sort of crisis so that my colleagues could get on with their projects.
Since I worked for a boss who drank a lot of coffee, I learned to handle our firm’s daily dilemmas rapidly. One of our attorneys even nicknamed me the office “field marshal” because of the brisk manner in which I assessed and addressed issues, with crisp, bullet-pointed emails laying out the various steps that needed to be taken.
Unfortunately, such business-world efficiency hasn’t exactly been a transferable skill when it comes to relationships. All too often, as loved ones have confided to me their troubles, I’ve interrupted with strings of “shoulds” and “oughts”: “Why are you still dating such an immature person?” I demanded of one friend, while I hastily advised another, struggling to obtain a professional license, that she might want to rethink her choice of career.
A few trips to the confessional, prompted by what you might call a “spiritual spanking,” have recently begun to impress upon me more clearly that no matter how well-intended, task lists aren’t the answer to tears. Before we can soothe the distressed souls in our midst, we must of course listen — but before and beyond that, we must care.
Theologian Henri Nouwen wisely observed that Jesus never cured anyone without first entering into their suffering. Whether accepting some meager loaves and fish for multiplication or weeping at the grave of Lazarus before raising him from the dead, Christ began by sharing in human lack, frustration and brokenness. That “participation in the pain,” Nouwen noted, is intrinsic to the very word “care,” which derives from the Gothic “kara,” meaning “lament.”
Many (perhaps most) of us would far rather “use our expertise to keep a safe distance” from the messiness of others’ frailty, which reminds us of our own, said Nouwen. We’d rather “be professionals: heal the sick, help the poor, teach the ignorant, and organize the scattered,” he said, and thereby focus on “cure and change.”
But “in the long run, cure without care is more harmful than helpful,” he warned.
When we “run away from … painful realities or try to change them as soon as possible,” we are first running away from our own humanity, and setting ourselves up to be “rulers, controllers, (and) manipulators,” Nouwen pointed out.
As a result, “cure without care makes us … impatient and unwilling to share each other’s burden,” Nouwen wrote, adding that vulnerable individuals, marginalized groups and nations in need have refused assistance offered “out of a non-caring hand.”
When instead we are able to “sit in silence with (others) not knowing what to say but knowing that (we) should be there,” we can “bring new life in a dying heart,” and forge “the fellowship of the broken,” he said.
At the stoplight or store entrance, we feel overwhelmed by the cardboard sign clasped in grimed hands, so much so that we dare not look into the eyes of the one who holds it. We avert our gaze from the palsied limb, close our ears to the bewildering cry of the mentally ill, change the station when the news broadcast flashes an image of migrants at sea, tossed between borders.
Yet although such misery would seem to exceed the most robust of resources, Nouwen said that “every human being has a great, yet often unknown, gift to care, to be compassionate, to become present to the other, to listen, to hear and to receive.”
Do we have the courage to sit on the sidewalk with those for whom the city’s concrete is home?
Are we able to walk with a pregnant teen thinking of ending her baby’s life, and possibly her own?
Can we watch one hour with a Lord left alone in a darkened sanctuary, and for once ask what we can do for him?
In this anguished moment in our history, when sickness and strife have left us staggering, if that gift to care “would be set free and made available,” Nouwen promised, “miracles could take place.”
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