The bitterly cold weather we’ve been having lately, has reminded me of something that happened years ago. When I was a young woman, I worked a midnight shift job to put myself through college. Every other Thursday, we had to go to the main office to pick up our checks. (This was way before direct deposit.) One particularly icy day, I was in the parking lot when I slipped and fell. I was stunned and in some pain. A young man ran up, looked down at me and asked, “Are you okay?”
“No,” I croaked, lying there.
He blinked, straightened up, walked to his car and drove away. I was left lying on the frozen ground to fend for myself. He didn’t offer to help me up; he didn’t go back into the office to get help. He just drove away. I kid you not.
About a decade later, I was in another situation where I was left high and dry. My husband had just lost his job. The company he’d worked for sold off his division and the new company gave his position to the owner’s daughter. Almost immediately after receiving this news, I got a phone call from a complete stranger from the church we were attending who’d been given the assignment of starting a small group. With barely an introduction, the woman on the phone told me (told, not asked) to bring enough food to feed a small army the following Friday to her house. Still reeling from the news, I told her my husband had just lost his job and I wasn’t sure how we were going to eat, let alone feed another fifteen people. She didn’t offer to help. She didn’t even offer to pray. She just hung up. I never heard from her or the small group again. We drifted away from any church for a few years.
I have forgiven these people, or at least I’m working on it. But it does rather strike me that many people who claim to follow Christ behave in very callous ways. They may act concerned, as the young man did, or not act concerned at all, like the woman on the phone. When faced with real need they simply walk away. I don’t think its lack of concern. Rather, they just don’t know what to do. The Church, as a whole, does not disciple people well. It seems many churches are more concerned about being entertainment, rather than places of truth and healing. As a result, most Christians are ineffectual in handling the pain that people experience in everyday life. They may offer some useless platitude (for example, misquoting Romans 8:28) and walk away, leaving the person that’s in pain as bad as they found them, if not worse.
There is a better way. We can all be trained to be caregivers. It’s not rocket science, but it will get you out of your comfort zone. We can be taught to do the work of listening. Work? Yes. Listening requires much personal involvement and commitment. If you’re waiting for someone to stop talking so you can say your bit, you aren’t listening. Listening takes desire, commitment and patience. Listening requires you notice what’s being said and what’s not being said. Listening is an art, and art requires time and training.
Sometimes, it only takes a simple outstretched hand, to help someone who has slipped on the ice.
Loneliness and the feeling of being unwanted is the most terrible poverty. - Mother Teresa
My earliest memory is one of being alone...of course. I never really thought much about it, but a friend once shared with me her earliest memory of being a toddler. She was approaching a swimming pool and she was unafraid because she knew her mother and grandmother were behind her and wouldn't let anything happen to her.
When she shared this with me, my first memory hit me in the face like a cold, wet and somewhat dirty sock. I was also a toddler. My mother had brought me to the farm. She wanted to visit her mother to unburden her heart. Marriage and motherhood weren't living up to her expectations. She and Grandma wanted time to be together and I was in the way. The way I remember it was that Mom was not prepared for the cold snap and I didn't have anything to wear that was suitable for outside. Grandma had something from another child that had visited and left it behind, so I was dressed in a hand-me-down snowsuit to go outside to play. The snowsuit was a shiny fabric that was reddish purple and quilted...funny how those kind of details can stick in your memory.
I was told to go to the barnyard. The ground was frozen and rock hard. Ice was skimming the top of puddles. For some reason, I was given a balloon that was tied to my wrist. It was not filled with helium, so it just dragged along the ground behind me as I stomped out to the barnyard to see if Grandpa was there. I hadn't gone very far when a sharp rock introduced itself to my balloon and there was a loud 'pop' behind me. I turned and stared at the colorful shreds of rubber at the end of my string. I wanted to cry but then I remembered that no one would comfort me. As a two-year-old, I made a conscious decision to not seek solace. I knew – I already knew as a toddler – that I was utterly alone. I turned and continued to trudge to the barnyard.
Internalizing that moment at such a tender age has deeply affected me in ways that even more than 50 years later I can't completely comprehend. Believing that I'm not cared for means that I often just do things on my own because I don't think I can find anyone who cares enough to help. I confess that sometimes, I conclude that's why my husband appreciates me so much – I'm very low maintenance. There have been times I have asked for help or fellowship from friends or family and none has been forthcoming, which only reinforces the feeling that I am truly alone.
But apparently, that is not the face I present to the world. When sharing with an artist friend one time that I often felt lonely, she laughed in disbelief and said that I was a one person party. Her view of me was of a good time girl, because in the circle that we were in (artists that joined together weekly to paint from a model) I was confident and amusing. Confidence in a craft or having a sense of humor, though, does not mean a person does not have deeper feelings of pain. That particular interaction made me feel that, once again, I was truly on my own.
So how does one break that sort of emotional bondage? I can only answer that question from a base of faith. I really don't know how someone who doesn't know the love of a very personal God heals from that. It has been through the context of faith that I have found healing. Emotional, spiritual and physical healing. That is the context that I operate out of and that I can speak from. It starts with a prayer. And here's the thing...it doesn't have to be a prayer of faith. It starts with just calling out to the One Who can help. It can be an angry prayer, a doubtful prayer, a passionate prayer or a quiet prayer. It doesn't have to be long, it doesn't have to follow a formula. It can simply be one word. Help. But it's enough to start the journey into wholeness.
Donna Kemper put aside her art career to care for a mother she hadn't seen in over a decade. For seven years she followed her mother's journey into dementia, caring for her and putting forgiveness into action.