When someone I love is hurting, I want to do everything I can to mitigate against it. My mind races, asking: what can I do to make this better?
What can I say? What could I put in the mail to them? What little surprise could I arrange to leave by their door? Can't I do something?
I am rereading Rabbi Alan Lew's This Is Real And You Are Completely Unprepared: The Days of Awe as a Journey of Transformation again.
Here is a passage which leapt out at me, from the section of the Elul chapter dedicated to this week's Torah portion, Shoftim:
We know that emotions are contagious. We know that they do not honor the boundaries of self, and even seem to mock them. We all have the same heart. So if someone is afraid, the Torah tells us, we had better send him home from battle before the fear spreads from his heart to ours. The fear is more real than the self.
But this emotional contagion is not limited to fear. Fear is only one example of what ripples soul to soul and heart to heart. Love also does this. So does happiness. So does suffering...
What is occluding the deep connection between you and your fellow human beings? That is also right there over your heart, and that also needs to be looked at. One of the things that most often impedes this connection is our fear of one another's pain.
I love his language of "rippl[ing] soul to soul and heart to heart." Grief does this. Suffering does this. And love does this. He writes, later in that same section, that the problem is not that our loved ones suffer; the problem is our false sense that there's something we're supposed to be able to do about it.
And he tells a story about how, as a hospital chaplain, he would linger outside a patient's door, letting his own fears and anxieties crest: what can I do, I can't fix it, I want to fix it and I can't. And then he would remind himself that his role was not to fix: it was to be present, with acceptance and with love.
When my loved ones are struggling, I find myself in the same boat. I don't want to accept their circumstance; I want to find some way to fix it or improve it. Sometimes I can sweeten it, and I'm glad when that turns out to be true. But ultimately, my job isn't to fix. It's to be present, and to love.
That's what I need to accept. I don't have control over whether and how my loved ones suffer. But I can try to always be present to them with a whole heart and with willingness to let myself be moved.
I'm participating again this year in #blogElul, an internet-wide carnival of themed posts aimed at waking the heart and soul before the Days of Awe. (Organized by Ima Bima.) Read #blogElul posts via the Elul tag; last year's posts are now available in print and e-book form as See Me: Elul poems.