The image of compassion: a mother running along the bank of a rapid river, keeping up with her drowning child, running along the bank because she had no arms.—Lindsay Hill, Sea of Hooks, citing Patrul Rinpoche
An older man in my congregation called me last week because he forgot his wife’s cell phone number. The doctor’s office had called and he needed to relay an important message about a cancelation. I told him I didn’t have her number but I would try to find it and call him back. I called a couple of people who didn’t have it, and then I remembered that the wife sings in our choir. I got the choir director on the phone and she said yes she had the lady’s number but it was saved in her own cell, the one she was talking on. She’d have to hang up and call me back. She did, and I wrote down the number. Triumphant, I called the man back but as I went to read him the number I realized I had written it down wrong. There were only nine digits, not ten. I apologized and told him I’d have to call him back again. I tried and tried but couldn’t get the choir director on the phone. No one else I could think of had the number. An invisible vise squeezed my chest. I hated that I couldn’t assist someone who reached out to me. It’s lonely at the intersection of compassion and helplessness. I’ve been there many times.
The first death I dealt with as a pastor was tragic. The wife of my chairman of deacons took her own life violently on a Sunday morning with her husband and seventeen-year-old daughter at home. A neighbor of the family called me and said I needed to get over there right away. I did. A lone deputy sheriff was there, retrieving something from his squad car. He saw me walking up the drive and asked if I was the coroner, I guess because I was dressed for church, wearing a dark suit and tie. I said no, but wished I were. I thought it would have been easier dealing with the dead body than the live, grief-stricken people. I went in and saw the husband looking shell shocked and the daughter with swollen eyes. There was no Bible verse, no counseling trick, nothing in my pastoral toolkit that would make this situation better. I sat next the husband, put my hand on his shoulder, and said nothing. We sat in silence together for a long time.
What do you do when you desperately want to help but you’re powerless?
You must learn to say to yourself that you have no arms; that there is nothing in the world you can fix.