“I had to bury my mother,” she said. The masks we wore did nothing to lessen the gravity of her words or impede the emotion carried with them. Her eyes exclaimed it. “She was my best friend. She had me when she was 17. I thought we’d grow old together.” All I could do was listen. Without thinking, I put my hand on her shoulder and said “God bless you.” I hope I was able to convey even a fraction of my heart for her in that moment. Sally hugged her. All we had to offer was a few minutes of being present for her.
Moments before, we had encountered another acquaintance whom we had not spoken with in a few months. He was jittery with nervous energy over the prospects of his 14 year old son coming to live with him. The young man had, earlier that day, announced to his mom his desire to live with his father, her ex-husband. Our friend was consumed with the thrill and the weight of the possibility. His ex-wife was devastated at the prospect and her parents were now involved to help mediate. The implications were staggering. “How do I support my ex-wife?” he thought out loud. “What will life with my son look like?” “Is this really happening?” He buzzed with the excitement and gravity of his own possibility. Lying below the anticipation was the fear of what it would mean to the life he knew.
Driving home, the two conversations reminded us of an encounter with another acquaintance we had seen a few weeks before. “My baby was murdered,” she announced during the niceties of our greetings. Shocked, we just looked at her, certain we hadn’t heard her correctly. “Her estranged husband killed her and then himself,” she affirmed. The hurt and anger appeared in parallel; not in an emotional way but in a controlled demonstration of strength and resilience. “What do I tell her children?” “How do I help them grow up in a world where that happened?”
The encounters were so incredibly human. They were raw with humanity. The struggle, the pain, the loss, the possibility, the past, and the future laid across the conversations like a patchwork quilt of raw emotion and spirit. Each person’s controlled physical disposition, there were no emotional outbursts, only heightened the tension and weight of the interactions.
These are the stories moving around all of us every day. Some of them, we are living, but many more are playing out in endless ways. It doesn’t matter where you live or work or shop or vacation or eat or walk. You are passing the human drama every time you look at another person. These are the crosses we bear and, though the struggles may vary, every single one of us is carrying his or her own.
The depth and breadth of the human story is staggering. Our capacity for it is awe-inspiring. When loss comes and the devastation of it follows, we are tested in ways we can only imagine. Encountering someone walking through devastation, reminds us of our frailty as human beings but also of the mighty strength within; watching, we see the power to endure. Walking through devastation ourselves, we never feel up to it, yet the next step comes and we take it. On and on we push forward until we find ourselves living in spite of our sense of the impossibility of being able to continue.
Loss comes in many forms. Loss of freedom. Loss of innocence. Loss of belief. Loss of love or friendship. Loss of faith. Loss of health. The crosses come in many shapes and sizes. The struggle is real and finds each of us. No one is immune. No one is beyond it. Suffering is the ultimate equalizer.
And yet, considering the encounters above, even extreme losses take us somewhere new. Even in the heartbreak, our friends had a spark of hope. The daunting challenge of moving on and learning to live again in a world that had radically changed was drawing something else from them. They were survivors. They found strength somewhere inside and then in the faith and support of their loving family and friend community.
Considering our friend who faced the prospect of bringing his son home with him, the cross was very different. It was the mixed bag of happy and sad that comes with life’s momentous shifts. Ecstatic that he would have a chance to be a part of his son’s high school years, he was anxious about what the change would do to the balance in his family life, the day-to-day of his personal life, and even to his relationship with his son. His eyes were open wide even while he was surrendering to a process in which he felt like both spectator and actor. The cross was different: awkward, heavy, and unwieldy, still to be carried but to a different end than our other friends.
When we see the people we encounter in light of their struggles, our hearts are changed. When we look out across the world and understand the common ground of suffering, our minds begin to comprehend our interdependencies in a new way. We need one another to survive. We need one another to manage. We need one another to thrive.
In the brief encounters above, we were helpless to do or say anything to change the respective circumstances. Perhaps our awkward attempts at encouragement and displays of empathy came across as empty and the few minutes we invested in each did little to ameliorate their hurt or fear or doubt.
But maybe, just maybe, in those small acts of presence, we conveyed some sense of our humanity on a shared journey. Perhaps our awkward, fumbling attempts to be present touched them somewhere elemental and meaningful. It could be that we were placed exactly where we needed to be, where they needed us to be, to help them cross to the next stone amid the raging emotional river they were traversing in that moment. Maybe.
This week, walk out into your world with your eyes wide open. if you are in a season of suffering, look around for those who might lay that next stone across your raging river or provide a helping hand for that step you are struggling to take and then let them. If your cross feels light today, look around for someone who might need a bit of help with theirs. They are all around us and we desperately need one another. We really are all in this together.