It was a honking big needle the nurse held up as my very sick friend pulled up his sleeve. I really, really don’t like needles, but I stayed by his chair as the nurse pushed the needle into the underside of his upper arm, because that was a spot that wasn’t all bruised from IV needles. He thanked me as I wheeled him out of the doctor’s office. “I notice you stayed,” he said, and grinned a little. Sick as he was, my discomfort amused him.
Mine was a tiny act of friendship. Not a big deal, even for someone with needle-phobia. It still meant something to a sick man to have his friend stay with him as he got his shot.
Woody Allen said that “Eighty percent of success is just showing up,” and in being with my friend (I wrote about him here and here). I’ve been seeing how much of the Christian life is just being there, which is not an easy lesson for some of us to learn.
Christianity answers our questions, sure, but it doesn’t always answer them as completely as we want. Sometimes the truth that you believe with all your heart doesn’t help you deal with pain. The truth can comfort you but it doesn’t comfort you in the same way that a friend sitting at your side comforts you.
Don’t Lean on Answers
I’m not saying that the answers aren’t important and that the suffering should throw out their copies of the Catechism of the Catholic Church. We need to know the big story to make sense of our own small stories. The Church tells us that our suffering matters and that the world still makes sense, that it’s still a good place, that everything works out for our good in the end. It tells us we can live in hope.
It’s not nothing to know that’s the truth about the cosmos. Anyone can say “God loves you,” talking about who knows what god. People do. It’s easy to say. It’s also often meaningless. You’re thinking that God loves you but you’d like a damned good answer for how he could love you and still let you (or someone you love) suffer like this. It helps to know what the real God has said about life and death, including yours.
Some of us — me, for one — tend to think that once we’ve explained something we’ve fixed it. We feel the need to explain, even to those who really don’t want to hear it. Others want to do something else to fix the problem, but the compulsion to explain is probably common among people who read publications like this one.
I’m not saying the answers aren’t important, but I am saying that we can’t lean on ideas, however true they are. Our suffering friends usually want us to talk to them about friends, or pray with them or watch tv with them, or just sit there and not say a word. They’re rarely big on an intense discussion of theodicy.
A friend told me about talking with a friend who’d just lost a loved one. He wrote: “I told my friend that all I really have for him are the platitudes about ‘God’s providence,’ etc., that I’m sure he’s heard before. Other than that I’m flying blind. He told me later that he found our conversation very helpful, but I’m not really sure how.”
I think his friend found the conversation helpful because he didn’t say stuff just to say stuff. It’s helpful to have someone speak realistically to you, even if all he says is “I really don’t have anything to say.” That’s the way to be there with a friend.
More Than Answers
Being with my friend, I’ve learned better how much of the Christian life is just being there. We need the answers the Church provides, but not only the answers. Truth isn’t all that God gives us through the Church. He gives us himself and each other.
God gave us Christ in the sacrament. He’s there with us, all the time, in every church. He also gave us each other. He wants us to be there for each other.
Catholicism answers mankind’s most urgent questions. True, and crucial to know. But the practical truth is that sometimes we don’t need the answers in that form. The suffering need Jesus in the Sacrament and they need him in his people. We bring Jesus to others just by sitting with them, as the nurse holds up the honking big needle, and sometimes that by itself answers all the big questions.
David Mills, former executive editor of First Things, is a senior editor of The Stream, editorial director for Ethika Politika and columnist for several Catholic publications. His latest book is Discovering Mary. Follow him on Twitter @DavidMillsWrtng.