Are you ever going along, thinking you’re doing a pretty darned good job of accepting what can’t be changed (as in “God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can,” etc.) with good cheer and grace? Soldiering on suffering what tiny sufferings you’re called to undergo in silence? And then suddenly you realize that what you’re really doing is accepting the completely unacceptable? That you are not “soldiering on,” but are instead, one more time, failing to take into account your simplest needs? I had this unhappy experience myself the other day when I realized: Why, for the fourth time, was I hanging around between 2 and 6 in the afternoon waiting for Luis or Herman or Ramon to come and fix the heat? Which this whole entire freezing cold winter, had never properly worked?
As you may or may not know, since last September I have been sharing a house with a gal in a section of L.A. called Silver Lake. It’s a lavish, beautiful house and one of the pluses is that my housemate, who owns the house, is often not there. She owns six more houses out in the desert, five of which provide rental income, plus she owns a business, so money is not the problem. She hadn’t at all ignored the problem; in fact as I said, the guy, several different guys, actually, had been out four different times. But I think I had been thinking I “should” feel so grateful for this spread–the washer-dryer, the free wifi, the big back yard–that going without heat was not that big a deal. I didn’t have to say I’d make myself available from 2 to 6 or 10 to 2 or or 9 to 1, but I was usually home writing so it seemed churlish to say no, especially since she was busy elsewhere. But the upshot was that one more time I’d stayed home all afternoon, waited for the guy, run interference with someone whose first language was not English, brokered calls between him and my housemate (who was off tending to her business), and now, it was 6:10, the guy wasn’t done, I still wasn’t free to leave, and also, it transpired, there was a plumbing problem and the cellar, which Luis invited me down to see, had about two inches of water in it from a broken PVC pipe or some such thing.
I didn’t care about a PVC pipe: I just wanted to enjoy my room that I pay rent for every month and have heat, light, and water in it. Instead, since I’ve been here I’ve dealt with the exterminator, the electrician (after multiple blowouts), the heating guy, and now the plumbing was going as well? While the whole winter I’d been going about the house in a sweater, a coat and two scarves! Huddled next to a space heater. Granted, I’m one of those people who’s “always cold,” but who wouldn’t be? I mean Southern California is not Alaska or anything, but it’s gotten down to the 30’s at night. It’s been cold, for heaven’s sake! For months!
That I’d been sick all week didn’t help. I felt weakened, ugly and frail. On top of all that, I’m leaving next Wednesday for two weeks in New Hampshire–Great! New Hampshire in February oughta be balmy! my mind had begun pulsing. My pore mother has Alzheimer’s, my ex-husband’s suffering from chronic pain, the roads are treacherous. This oughta be a fun trip. Finally Luis left and I decided, Okay, My hair is simply gnarly. I am going to walk down to Super Cuts in the dark and get it trimmed.
Halfway there I realized I’d forgotten to bring my purse, so wandered up and down the hilly residential streets in the dark crying. Maybe this living situation was really starting to fray on me. Partly I’d entered into this housemate situation in order to save money, partly I’d been willing to stretch myself in ways I knew I needed to be stretched, and granted, I was feeling a bit overwrought, but I was feeling called upon to be way more inconvenienced than I should possibly have to be.
The cat, for another thing, made my life a constant hell: prowling around my door, whining, screeching, getting underfoot the moment I emerged, demanding to be fed, waking me up, jumping up on my bed and giving me momentary earthquake scares. And that I had gone a whole winter without heat suddenly struck me as just unbelievably wrong and sad and somehow emblematic of some failure or lack in me. Some horrible Sisyphean sense that I dare say comes upon us all every so often that, no matter how hard I try, I always come up short: that thus it ever has been, and thus it ever shall.
Still, this was nothing I hadn’t dealt with a thousand times before. I’d go home and make a cup of tea. But I arrived to find a FB message from a youngish (younger than me) Catholic guy who has somehow glommed on to me and asked the same question, or a variation thereof, at least five different times:
“You seem to avoid some of the tense battles among Catholics on left and right. Issues like the Latin Mass, abortion in the health care bill, what the Church did, should have done in regards to sex abuse scandal, etc. Do you think the hot button issues of the day are important for the average Catholic to engage in and fret about? I have and it’s making me so upset, angry, stressed, etc. I wonder if I am losing my focus on the real spiritual battle?
Should I be e-mailing, discussing, lobbying, debating people, friends, family on the wrongness say of abortion or gay marriage or the culture of death, etc. or should I be inside a church praying, doing small acts of penance, works of mercy that don’t seem to amount to much while the whole world keeps moving in the wrong direction…?”
I had responded at length, and with for me quite a bit of patience, and on several different occasions, to these exact same questions before. I had said, basically, You have to figure out what you’re for, not what you’re against. You have to act out of love, and for me that has taken decades of a rocky, almost unbelievably lonely desert path. You have to love Christ, and if you love Him, He will lead you. You will hear his voice. He knows his sheep and they know him. What is really hard, and requires real fierceness, and real sacrifice, and real faith, is the ongoing, daily, incessant, hidden, anonymous, silent work of learning to love your neighbor, to refrain from the harsh retort, to not make people into enemies, to try to be kind even when you’re in terrible pain yourself. And then a week later the guy would e-mail saying: “Why do all my FB friends get mad at me when I tell them they’re wrong for supporting women’s ordination?”
So when I saw this guy had e-mailed me AGAIN, I wanted to say: “How do I know what you ‘should’ do? You should leave me alone!”
And right then an e-mail came through from this woman, I don’t know where she was from, but she’d read my books and she wanted to thank me. She wasn’t an alcoholic but she’ was disabled and this has been a huge, ongoing struggle and challenge not to feel victimized; not to make her life one big resentment.
“I am consoled by a God who enters into a frail body and knows what is is to hurt and be tired. Even my disabled friends who weren’t necessarily Christian were touched by Christ’s suffering. I was meditating on the mysteries and I thought of Christ consoling the women on the way to Golgotha. Here he is, broken, tired, and bleeding, and yet he still finds it within Himself to comfort others. We are never relieved of our obligation to love and comfort others. No matter how small my actions may be I must reach out to others in love no matter how dire my own circumstance.”
So there you have it: the heart of what it means to follow Christ; and in a way, too, the “answer” to the guy’s question. You have to deal with your own terrible, incessant weaknesses and frailties and basic needs, and you also have to remain forever open to the needs and weaknesses of others. And sometimes that seems so hard you just want to put your head in your hands and cry: out of frustration, our of fatigue, out of forlornness. There is so little we can do for each other and yet we are bound with our dying breath to do what we can anyway.
This young man, who had been unfailingly polite, who had inquired after my health, who was obviously a kind, well-meaning, earnest seeker was asking an important question. And maybe the reason he kept asking was because I kept responding in a way that was partly sincere but partly also wanted to get him off my back, the answer to me seemed so obvious. So I am going to give his concerns some more thought and maybe write a longer, more reasoned response that I can share with you all as well and there it will be in case the question comes up again, from him or others. I asked him if I could quote his email and he said yes and when he reads this, this dear man will know what poor material he’s dealing with!
All of the above brought to mind a passage from A River Runs Through It, the spare, true, gem-like, heart-wrenching novella by the late Norman Maclean.The story is about fly-fishing, but it’s also about fathers and sons and mothers, and alcoholism, and what we pass on to each other, and rivers and mountains and trees, and the rock-hard, bone-deep realities of love.
This is a conversation between the eldest son and his father about the younger, troubled, doomed, tragically flawed and much beloved brother/son:
“You are too young to help anybody and I am too old,” [the father] said. “By help I don’t mean a courtesy like serving chokecherry jelly or giving money.
“Help,” he said, “is giving part of yourself to somebody who comes to accept it willingly and needs it badly.
“So it is,” he said, using an old homiletic transition, “that we can seldom help anybody. Either we don’t know what part to give or maybe we don’t like to give any part of ourselves. Then, more often than not, the part that is needed is not wanted. And even more often, we do not have the part that is needed. It is like the auto-supply shop over town where they always say, ‘Sorry, we are just out of that part.’”
I told him, “You make it too tough. Help doesn’t have to be anything that big.”
He asked me, “Do you think your mother helps him by buttering his rolls?”
“She might,” I told him. “In fact, yes, I think she does.”