What to Do When There Is Nothing You Can Do
We’ve all been there. Someone you love is hurting—horribly. The dreaded diagnosis was given. The phone call was received that changed life forever. A mother had to bury her child. A friend just signed the divorce papers. The pregnancy ended too soon. The layoff came out of nowhere. There is no shortage of hurt and difficulty in the world around us. And unlike generations past, we are constantly exposed to the painful circumstances of people around the world through constant news access and our online social media communities.
I’ve heard the phrase “compassion fatigue” used a lot in recent years. This refers to the point we reach when we are so inundated with the pain of others that we feel like we cannot take on one more burden, so we look away. After all, we don’t have the financial or physical capacity to give to every worthy cause that is placed before us. “Compassion fatigue” sounds bleak, but the encouraging thing about compassion fatigue is that one cannot become fatigued from something in which one is not participating. If compassion fatigue is a problem for you, it does not imply that you are cold and unfeeling, but rather that you are warm and empathetic.
Finding proper emotional and personal boundaries in today’s world is challenging. But let’s address what we can do when someone close to us is hurting. Most of us today have broad communities, but hopefully we also have our core people—people with whom we regularly interact, with whom we live out tangible community.
I have recently been helping care for my mother after major surgery. She has been in so much pain, and I have wanted so badly to be able to do something to make it stop. I have a sweet friend with young children who recently found out that her cancer has returned. And I want to do something to make it go away. One of my children is struggling with anxiety, and I want to do something to ease the worries. But in each of these situations and many others, I simply cannot fix the problem. So, what can I do? I want to look to Jesus for the answer.
One of my favorite stories about Jesus in the Gospels is when Lazarus dies and Jesus goes to the family. Mary, the sister of Lazarus, rushes to meet Jesus who has asked for her. Crying, she falls at his feet. She is experiencing heartbreak; grief pours out of her. And Jesus, in all his knowledge and power, looks on her suffering and begins to cry. One can only assume that he knows he will soon raise Lazarus from the dead. He has already told his disciples that he would raise him. His tears are not for the loss of his friend whom he loves; they are for the pain and heartbreak he is witnessing. He sees Mary in her suffering, and he joins her there. He is with her. He loves her. He is moved by her pain. He does not diminish her pain but validates it with his own tears. God cries with her. And in the next chapter we see Mary anoint Jesus’s feet with oil and wipe them dry with her hair to prepare him for his coming burial. People think she’s crazy, but she is present with Jesus the same way he was with her. The man who wept with her had gained her loyalty. She would give anything for him.
Sometimes, when the situation is so dire, being present is the most compassionate thing we can do. Being available in body and soul to those in our lives who are hurting requires an investment. It requires the ability to move past the discomfort of feeling helpless and vulnerable. It could require us to jeopardize our image. When Jesus sat with the Samaritan woman at the well, and when he stood with the woman who was caught in adultery, he knew what people would say about him. But he also knew the back stories of those women. He knew their pain. And he was determined to stand with them no matter what it cost him. And it changed their lives. Being present will probably require time and emotional energy. It may be that all we can do is sit with someone in their pain and say, “I’m here.” Often, that is enough.
Compassion for those around the world is important. We are called to bring healing and restoration to all of God’s children. But may we never lose sight of the ones who are right before us—the ones who need someone to see their pain, cry with them, and simply be with them. Our presence likely won’t fix their situation, but it may bring healing to their soul.