This is re-post of a piece co-authored with Stephen Healy for The Daily Marinade , first published July 15th 2017.
In a post circulating on facebook from 2016, a woman describes her struggle with giving up alcohol in a society that seems to require women to drink to just get through life. Giving up drinking seems to have rendered her acutely aware of her misery and unable to blunt it or to smooth it over. In her case her suffering seems to come from at least a few different points, including a kind of omnipresent sexism in the work place, an ongoing demand from her peers that she “enjoy” herself, particularly through adding wine into every occasion, and finally the way in which society seems to have transformed the feminist proposition “you can be anything” into “you must be everything”, an acute pain that seems to underlie her deep-seated ambivalence about sober life.
As co-authors interested in the problem of care in contemporary society, we were struck by this story, and asked ourselves the question: how could one care for a woman for whom life seems so impossible?
This is a question asked by Henri Nouwen in his 1972 book The Wounded Healer, in his case through an analysis of an ineffectual ministry conversation between a young theology student visiting a sick farm-worker waiting for surgery in hospital. The farm-worker expressed – somewhat hesitantly – his fear of death, and his fear of life, in which no one waited for him to return from his operation. Sadly, he dies soon after on the operating table. Nouwen asks how a young theology student with plenty to live for can respond to a stranger alone and in need. He encourages the minister to step into the life world of the stranger and offer personal concern and love. To offer, in fact, not to be a skilled counsellor, but to be the person waiting for him to return from surgery, in solidarity in both life and death.
How can we really be present for someone in both life and death? To offer structured counseling responses to the woman struggling with sober life would perhaps not be as useful as being the person waiting, being willing to sit alongside in sobriety and life and say not ‘it will all be OK’ but I know, I’ll wait, I’m here. And through that statement, to draw attention not just to our presence but the possibility of One greater than ourselves who is also knowing, waiting, here.
Nouwen suggests that being present in this way can make the difference even in the few moments we might have with a stranger – to ignore our calendars and commitments, to express solidarity in the struggle of life and death and to be willing to ‘leave the ninety-nine in order to go after the one’. He asks us not to ‘diminish the power of waiting by saying that a lifesaving relationship cannot develop in an hour’, insisting that:
One compassionate gaze or one affectionate handshake can substitute for years of friendship when a person is in agony. Not only does love last forever, it needs only a second to be born (p 72).
He continues the thought when considering love and solidarity in death as well as life:
“I will be waiting for you,” means much more than, “If you make it through the operation I will be here with you again.” There will be no “ifs.” “I will wait for you” goes beyond death and is the deepest expression of solidarity that breaks through the chains of death (p 74).
In that moment, Nouwen asserts, we are no longer ‘minister’ and ‘stranger’, but ‘two human beings who awaken in each other the deepest human intuition – that life is eternal and cannot be made futile by a biological process’ (p 75).
We finish with another facebook story: of Mohammed Bzeek, an LA man who fosters terminally ill children since his own near-death experience of facing cancer treatment alone. He brings the children in to his home and nurses them until death, holding them in their last moments, communicating I know, I’ll wait, I’m here. Drawing on his own faith in God’s love for each of these children, he doesn’t shy away from the pain life can bring, or demand we enjoy ourselves.
We don’t all get the chance to minister in that grand scale, but in this day, this week, this space – can we awaken faith and hope through our care-full love of the stranger who happens into our lives, and indeed, our neighbour? Can we draw attention, not to ourselves, but to the possibility of an ongoing contemplative spiritual connection to God, through being present in another’s pain – or in this case, being in some ways The Presence.