Some weeks ago, during my ministry visiting the residents of a local nursing home, I was walking down the hall when I heard a resident call out to me. She was confined to a wheelchair, and when I stopped to talk with her she began to tell me that her leg was in considerable pain and no one had come to help. After talking for a few moments, she realized I was not a doctor and that I was not the person who could help her. So, with disappointment on her face and a wave of her hand, she said, “I don’t need you.” That was the end of our conversation.
Just the other day I was at the same nursing home, and as I walked past this particular resident’s room, to my surprise she called to me. As I entered the room, she began to complain about her leg, and, again, that no one had been to help her. She seemed less disoriented than in our previous meeting, and we ended up talking for close to half an hour. Her main concern, it became clear, was not so much her leg, but the fact that she was alone. She had been married twice, and both husbands had passed away. She now lives in the nursing home, alone, and could not understand why no one comes to help her.
Walking away from this encounter, I had mixed emotions. On the one hand, I was happy to have had a conversation with this woman, who only shortly before wanted nothing to do with me. On the other hand, it is not pleasant when someone reveals to you that he or she feels completely alone. What was particularly troubling is that, even though this woman is experiencing loneliness, she routinely dismisses nurses and volunteers who come to spend time with her.
This woman is in a situation that is sadly all too common. We are taught to be independent, strong people who achieve their dreams. We are led to believe that we do not need anyone to get what we want, and that, when people get in our way we should get rid of them. And yet, more and more, people are depressed. More and more, people are lonely. More and more, people cannot manage to have sustained and meaningful relationships.
Why, we naturally ask? Well, depression and loneliness are caused by many different things. One is that many people do not feel Christ’s presence in their lives. But then it can be asked why people do not feel Christ’s presence in their lives. We live in a country and in a society shaped by Christianity, and yet people are starving for Him, and they often do not even realize it.
My first encounter with the woman was illustrative. In her need, she called out from her chair to someone she thought could help her—she may have confused my white habit for a doctor’s coat. Relieved that someone stopped to talk with her, she told me her immediate problem, but, realizing I could offer no medical attention, she rejected me—”I don’t need you.”
Sadly, the same thing often happens when people begin to look for Christ. There is an initial encounter, but because people often fail to look deeper into themselves to see what they actually need, they turn away from Christ because he does not seem to offer the help they are looking for. If Christ does not come on their terms, they do not need him.
Our human condition is fragile. We fall into sin, we turn from God, we hurt, and we are lonely. But, our fragile condition is not itself sin. It is a gift. Our fragility can unite us to Christ, because it is only then that we realize that nothing else will fulfill us.
Our humanity makes no sense without reference to eternity. Without God, we are meaningless, and the world, often tending toward nihilism, reflects this truth. The belief that we do not need anyone is perverse; it kills rather than strengthens us. We need each other desperately, and we need Christ even more.
We all experience pain at different times and in different ways, and we can mask our pain in creative ways. But the most tragic suffering is of those who do not know the love of God. Blessed Teresa of Calcutta once said, “The ‘least of my brethren’ are all those who have lost God and who have lost all hope in the power of the Spirit. For them, God was. But God is.” May the suffering and lonely know this week that God is.
Image: Tiepolo, Jesus Heals the Paralytic in Bethesda