These days many of us are having a hard time finding hope. Some of us are overwhelmed by serious personal problems. Others of us live with a foreboding sense of an uncertain future for ourselves and our children. Looming climate change, increasing inequity between rich and poor, and massive dysfunction in our government all add an eerie shakiness to our lives as if we were in the middle of an earthquake.
For safety’s sake we don’t know what ground to stand upon. Adding to our gloominess is the increasing ennui and detachment of modern living where friendships are only experienced at best on-line and people don’t have enough face-to-face real-life human interactions. Since real life attachments are the most important human need, it’s no wonder that many of us overdose on drugs or contemplate suicide. There is more than enough doom and gloom to go around. Nevertheless, I am here to tell you that there is even more abundant hope to go around and no reason to call it quits.
Allow me to share a story of hope from my own life that illustrates what I mean. It is a story that any of us can have. If we keep our hearts open and eyes alert any of us may have such an experience — in fact, you’ve probably have already had one. Here’s my tale:
My wife told me that her workplace asked her to take a week off as she has accumulated too much vacation time. I asked her where she would like to go in the middle of October. Perhaps some island in the Caribbean, the Grand Canyon or some other exotic place. She said, “Let’s go to Fargo for a week. I said, “Really?!” She said, “Yes.”
We don’t know a soul in Fargo. Why would we go to Fargo, North Dakota?! Many of her friends asked why we would go there. Knowing my wife has an uncanny history of keen intuition, I said, “Well of course we will go to Fargo.” We’ve had other similar mind-blowing trips due to her psychic instincts. So off we went.
I wish I could tell you that after several days in Fargo, it really is this great place to be. Actually, it was at first quite a disappointment. Thanks to past floods the city is laid out like one big strip mall surrounded by enormous levees. Despite having many nice people, the view in town was rather conservative, especially during the Kavanaugh hearings. The only art museum hardly had any paintings. There weren’t many community happenings. So my wife and I got as gloomy as the weather there. We kept asking ourselves, “So, why are we in Fargo?”
Turning up our intuitive senses we decided to do something about it. We sought out nature. We found enormous grassy levees to walk on, the same ones that protected the city from the floods of the Red River. Actually, we needed to walk the river as the day before a sad event had occurred in Fargo. An article in the local newspaper said that a local 20-year-old woman, who was a top student and popular kid, had suddenly died. No details were given as to how she died, and we wondered how it could have happened. We sadly reflected about how such a young woman could lose her whole life before her. To break the silence my wife said, “Well she probably killed herself.” Like a knife to the heart we were gripped with dread. I didn’t want to believe it.
We continued walking atop these green monsters as we reflected on our feelings. Finally we came to a lake-like part of the river. In the middle of the lake was a man slumped over in a small boat who appeared to be fishing. We wondered why he would be out alone fishing as it was only 30 degrees out. We wondered what he was doing. Finally he began to take the boat out of the river and onto a ramp behind his car. Just like that I told my wife I need to meet him as I descended from the levee. He just seemed so alone. I went up to him and asked, “So how’s the fishing?” He began describing how he got nibbles from some northern pikes but caught no fish. He said, “I didn’t really come here to fish. I just needed to get my head on straight.” Initially I worried that I was crossing his boundary and didn’t want to work on my vacation. But feeling his pain in my body even without knowing his story I decided there was no way I could dismiss his suffering. I decided to listen to all of his pain for as long as it took.
So I said, “Well, you are talking to the right person. I am on vacation but work as a psychologist who listens to people. Can you tell me what you mean?” He said that the past couple of days have been hell for him and his wife. They have thought about nothing else but how they are responsible for their young adult daughter taking her own life. He said he and his wife are numb with grief and that he couldn’t even function, despite the huge support they got from their church. I gasped at his revelation. We asked if it was his daughter whose news article appeared in the local newspaper the day before. He said, “Yes.”
We couldn’t believe that it was just a coincidence to meet this man after recently reading about his family in the newspaper. I felt a divine guidance in meeting this man and knew we were doing important business together. He explained how he and his wife have done umpteen things in the last year trying to get through to their daughter as they knew something was really wrong. Apparently she got hooked up with a group of negative friends who glorified suicide. I told him how deeply sorry I am to hear of his enormous loss both for him and his wife. I said as a father this news would devastate me too. I mentioned that unfortunately many depressed people cannot take in the abundant love that is often offered them, and that blaming themselves as parents is completely normal and is also a testimony to just how much love they actually had for their daughter. I also said that just because they take on the blame, it doesn’t make it true. Their efforts to care for their daughter speak volumes.
I asked what his daughter meant to him. That’s when the floodgate opened. Sobbing he could barely talk. I could barely talk too. I asked if I could give him a hug, like father to father. We both sobbed for 15 minutes in each other’s arms. Neither of us talked for minutes afterwards, knowing that something significant was happening between us. We sat once again in silence. Eventually I asked him what he did for a living. He said he was an electrician. “Electrician!” I said, “Man that’s exactly what I need right now.” The main circuit had just burned out in my house due to a storm just before we left. I asked, “Would you come home with us to St. Paul as I really need your help?” We laughed together as he gave me some instructions on how to repair my switch. Life became slightly less burdensome for him. He drove off smiling and waving goodbye to my wife and me. On cue my wife turned to me and said, “Now we know why we were supposed to go to Fargo!” I gave her a really big hug and marveled at a divine presence.
The weirdest part is that we ourselves were blessed from this experience. Our whole attitude changed towards Fargo. Our mood brightened as we realized that we had made the best choice in going there. We had made a difference to that man as he did for us. If that was the only thing we did there that week it would be way more than what we expected on vacation. We felt so privileged to have shared that time with this beloved man, whose name we never even learned.
I felt we were our bother’s keeper and it gave us more hope than we could have ever imagined getting. Like a miracle the next day we found plenty of good things to do in Fargo, including going to the zoo which houses the oddest animals in the world. But that’s another story. We left with a newfound hope in Fargo and in ourselves.
What does it take to be our brother’s keeper?
It takes dedicating ourselves to something beyond ourselves. So much of modern living means that we don’t get involved in other people’s problems. Our exaggerated adoration of rugged individualism and self-sufficiency causes many of us to refrain from getting involved. We may say, “Well, that’s not my problem” when someone near to us is suffering, or, “What do I have to offer anyway?” The truth is that when we are hurting we would wish to have someone approach us to offer help. The fact we overlook is that we are all in the same basket and that other people’s pain is our problem. Obviously, we cannot offer help to someone who refuses it — nor should we offer help solely for the purpose of feeling good about ourselves. True altruism is different from codependency. I wasn’t trying to control the man in Fargo. I was simply offering him a shoulder to cry on in his moment of anguish. I decided not to be scared of his dependency on me no matter how great it was. I knew I could draw the line when I needed to.
So many of us live the “let’s not get involved” life. What if we all decided to be our brother’s keeper in our daily lives? Perhaps we could shovel the elderly neighbor’s walk next door. Or we could offer to get groceries for the less fortunate handicapped woman down the street. Or we could spend 10 minutes listening to our mail delivery person when she has a difficult day.
It takes so little to show others that we care, even people we don’t know. Afterall, we are all each other’s brothers and sisters. When it comes to caring, little things mean a lot. I recall what the Sisters of Carondelet said about their caring for others, when asked how they came to be so charitable. They said, “It’s not that we do great things; it’s that we do small things with great love.” This perspective will put all our personal struggles in perspective and give us more purpose to living than we ever imagined. Even one sincere smile on our morning walk to a total stranger can change the world, both ours and the other person’s.
Why do we hold back?
Some of us are not ready to love others. We may be so preoccupied with out own troubles we feel we have very little to offer others. We may fail to see that genuinely offering to others may help us with our own troubles. We fail to see the gold mine in getting involved with people who are down and out. Some of us are so ashamed of ourselves that we feel we have little to offer. We make excuses for not being charitable by saying, “Let someone else help out” or “It’s not my job to solve someone else’s problems.”
Clearly when we avoid getting involved we are the ones who lose out. Had I not helped the man in the boat on my vacation I would have had a miserable week and maybe felt much worse for walking away from a person in need. I never felt it was my job to solve his problems. I just wanted to comfort him.
Finally, some of us dislike needy people because we ourselves are unable to set limits with how much we care or else we generally lack compassion towards others. We fear that we will lose ourselves in other people’s problems because of our own neediness. We may see needy people as deplorable, not seeing how they reflect our own limitations. The reality is that we will find ourselves in other people’s problems since we ourselves have some version of the same issues. We are all one.
It’s best to sincerely ask yourself, “Do I want to make a difference to others in my daily life?” Doing so for any of us means we live for something beyond ourselves and our own selfish interests. Clearly it is OK to say “No” as our own personal issues may preoccupy us. If you do say, “Yes” I happen to believe there is a whole hidden universe beyond what we know that is much bigger than ourselves. I get glimpses of that world when I dream at night and have voices of a Higher Power talk to me, or when I intuit knowledge with no rational explanation as to how I obtained it. Perhaps you have connected to a friend in some special way that still dazzles you and you cannot explain. You may want to read Almost Anything: Notes on Hope by Anne Lamott (Riverhead Books, 2018) and Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor E. Frankl (Beacon Press, 1952).
You may already know how to be your brother’s keeper but let me make a suggestion if you feel stuck. May I suggest that you do something compassionate or generous each day on a small scale and notice how you are affected by it. Perhaps you can keep a daily journal of kind acts and share what you are learning with a trusted friend. Out of this practice you may develop a psychic sense filled with compassion—ways of anticipating or knowing things before they happen that mean a lot to others.
You may begin to get a glimpse of the bigger picture to life and what a divine presence is trying to teach you. Trust your intuitive way of knowing things even when the world typically relies on hard science and logic to know what is true. Logic has it place but there is a whole unknown world out there that defies logic and really matters, sometimes even more than our rational world. If you have ever fallen in love you know what I mean. The fact is that even science defers to intuition. As a former research scientist myself I can tell you that much of the hard sciences originate in the intuitive and psychic world of our brains that has nothing to do with logic. Many of us over rely on technology because we are too scared to embrace the psychic realm.
If you take nothing else from this article remember this: Investing in hope and compassion shields us from the worst suffering of human life. Just do it.
John H. Driggs, LICSW, is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker in private practice in St. Paul and co-author of Intimacy Between Men (Penguin Books, 1990).