Innovations in medical science provide technologies that digest and analyze astonishing amounts of medical information. Treatments and techniques, elegant in detail, are put to use immediately, seemingly increasing our healing capacities at an unstoppable pace.
And yet, the speed of the human heart remains constant. No matter how small the incision, or how benign the chemotherapy, the human soul will forever ache for time – time to find its way, to step carefully through the garden of impossible choices, to seek the reassuring nourishment of good, honest company.
Those called to heal know loss, and grief, and the sweet balm of kindness. But as medicine spins faster on the axis of technology, there will come a moment in a day, a week, a month, when we are so thin, so very tender, distracted with worry, that we have no honest kindness left within us. We have been drained, used, taken by events poignant and necessary. But there invariable comes a moment when our true gift, our charism, the deeply healing nourishment that flows through us when we bring our full and complete presence – have all been drained from our heart, body, and soul. We are left with little more than a brittle illusion, a pathetic imitation of a true healer, a real friend, an honorable lover – the one authentically called, the one we know ourselves to be, at our best.
But what happens when we are not, and cannot be, our best?
We rarely tell the truth about this moment. First, we are reluctant to confess to ourselves that we are unable to be of use. That we can honestly bring nothing of any significant value to this person in the hospital, newly diagnosed with stage 4 liver cancer; for this child, frightened and alone, because she has just moved into the neighborhood, where they have no friends, and the other children seem to find some sport in making fun of her appearance, the way she talks, the little girl she is, and cannot change; nothing to soothe or comfort this man broken and defeated by the unexpected disappearance of his wife of ten years with another man, leaving him bereft of the lifelong love he knew was his destiny, having lost the most true thing his heart would remember, every morning of their life together.
We have all landed in this country. Sooner or later we meet ourselves in this desert; we are dry and parched, without water, without life. Yet we so often push on, striving to be of use, to fulfill an idea, to honor our sacred call to be of use. But what we have to give instead is a performance. Our acre is jagged, malignant, dishonest. Our conjured appearance of compassionate love is a pale reflection, a faded image of gentle comfort we do not have to give.
We never speak of this moment. We cannot, will not to our colleagues, our superiors, surely not those who come to us in the searing ache of need, that we are not, today, in this moment, a reliable well from which they can safely drink.
In the end, the most difficult truth is this: We will not even admit this to ourselves.
Our only alternative is to lie. To bring dishonest compassion, a forgery of love.
We must learn to speak with rigorous honesty about the corrosive truth of this inevitable, human moment. It arises within every one of us. Will we continue to pretend to care for what we cannot? Can this bone-weary, counterfeit kindness truly bring authentic healing, or does it merely exacerbate and prolong suffering for all involved?
Some of the wisest who came before us understood the quiet power of honesty. That the truth could set us free. That there was a fragile beauty in the imperfect presence of those called to accompany the sick, the wounded, the lost, through the dark wood of heart-shredding fear and sorrow.
Our work, should we heed this call, is to hold one another close. To listen together for the ancient and eternally faithful wellspring of tender, honest kindness. To listen for where such grace lives in us, and how it can die.
And how, together, when two or more are gathered, we resurrect one another, again and again.