With us

When Christ promised to send the Holy Spirit, He promised His presence. He did not promise to send the Cure for Cancer, or the Defeat of Enemies, or Happy Feelings. When we are suffering, we tend to cry out to God, “God, please, change our circumstances so that we no longer suffer; or at least please make the pain less.” And God can do these things, but He has not promised to necessarily do either of them. He only promised “I will not leave you alone.”

Now this is nothing new to say about God. One of the names for Jesus Christ, Immanuel, means “God With Us.” What occured to me recently is that this also is an example for us to follow. Most often when someone we know is in great distress, there is nothing we can do to improve the circumstances or decrease the pain. We can pray, and this should never be considered less than doing something, or a gesture devoid of effect. All things are in God’s hands, yet He expects us to have good care of the things He has placed in our hands, so it is often appropriate that after we pray, we put our bodies where are prayers are.

I have nothing to say to explain what good it does to merely be present, but I have seen the effect it has. A relative recently experienced a health crisis that jeopardized the family’s living income. I could not provide the income nor cure the ailment, but, being in the vicinity, and having sufficient means to provide at least some material aid, I went to visit my relative.

In the course of time I was able to do a few small things to help, but before I had done any of these things my relative remarked that I was the only one who cared what happened to the family. I know personally that this is false, having heard both first- and second-hand the concern of other family members; but this relative is fiercely independent, sensitive to perceived condescension, and unwilling to clearly communicate the extent of any personal crisis. In a haze of uncertainty, the other relatives hung back. Close at hand, I cautiously investigated. This created a misleading impression of my greater concern, a notion persistent enough that I have now heard it second-hand through another person.

Years ago I was in the converse situation. Years ago my Mom developed a complication in her pregnancy which required hospitalization for monitoring. As this was the situation for many weeks, my older brothers would bring groups of the younger children to visit her in turn. I regarded this as being, for the most part, an accomodation of the emotional neediness of little kids, and I seldom went along. After the pregnancy was safely over, I happened to overhear my Mom telling someone how she couldn’t help feeling that the children who visited her most were the ones who loved her most, even though she knew this was not true. I regretted the lost opportunity, not to make an appearance of filial devotion, but simply to be there. If I had perceived the visits as comforting my hospital-bound mother, rather than an arrangement of mothering obligations at large, I could easily and gladly made the time.

I have seen advice on grief counseling that says “Don’t offer any platitudes about how you understand or how it will fade with time, just listen and be there.” Platitudes can often come across as a way to try to move along the visit, to get done with being there, so they can be ill comfort, but they are also common in sincere and appreciated comfort. It is not the words which really matter; it is the choice to be there.

We usually feel so awkward being around people when we have nothing to do and nothing to say that we tend to avoid it. I think we underestimate the inexpressible color or fullness that only presence can provide, a color that is leaching out of families in our society as they spend less and less time together. Even as the significance of presence has become increasingly apparent to me, I continue to have difficulty remembering its consequence.