Several years ago, I was walking around the Venice Beach neighborhood, just ambling down the sidewalk, when I saw a guy approaching who was scrawny, disheveled, and talking audibly to himself. As we drew abreast, I gave him a friendly smile, at which point he stopped and with a note of desperation asked — pled, really: “Would you do me a favor? Would you just stand still and let me walk around you 10 times?”
“Absolutely,” I replied, and stood still, and he walked around me 10 times, thanked me profusely, and proceeded on.
I’ve been thinking of that interchange a lot lately. Maybe because it’s so seldom that a stranger asks for help in this world, and maybe because it’s seldom that you can offer the exact help needed and know that the help has “landed”: been received; provided relief. Standing still doesn’t require any special expertise or charism, so I didn’t feel as I often do when responding to a request that I was “doing it wrong.” I didn’t worry that I was incompetent.
I think, too, of the guy who approached me — what became of him, what kind of life he led, before, during, and after. I know enough about obsessive thoughts to know I wouldn’t wish them on my worst enemy. I think of all the people he must have walked by in his life, jumping out of his skin wanting to ask them if they’d mind standing still while he walked around them 10 times, but being afraid to, and thus continuing to hold the unbearable tension of what I took to be a form of OCD.
But I’ve also been thinking about the incident because so many of the people with whom I’ve come in contact lately are a variation of that guy. People with homes, jobs, and in many cases families who, for reasons too complex to plumb, are mentally and emotionally out of control. People who flit from one plan to another without the slightest capacity to take an action toward implementing the plan.
People who spew their entire family, psychiatric, and employment history, explaining that for them this is a form of “self-care.” People who maintain apartments in two different expensive cities, and are broke, working 80 hours a week, commuting back and forth, frazzled, stressed, on their last nerve, and refuse to entertain for a second the thought of giving up one of the apartments: they’ve just called because they want to “process.” People who ask, “Do you have five minutes you could give me?” and after I give them an hour, then say, “I need to get back to work,” draw themselves reproachfully up and reply coldly, “Oh. I guess you’re busy.”
As with the guy in Venice, listening to these sufferers doesn’t require any special skill. I can no more cure them than I could him. They just need someone to stand still while they walk frenzied circles around me, then move on, till they find the next person who’ll stand still for them.
And how many times has someone done that for me? Just listened while I’ve gone on and on about the perceived injustice of some arcane incident that even I’ve forgotten by the next week. How many times has some patient soul simply received my bewilderment and pain over a situation that I can’t see, feel, or believe my way out of? How many times have I been saved by someone with problems of their own who took the time to hear, see, stay, stand still?
“So, could you not watch with me for one hour?” asked Christ of Peter in the Garden at Gethsemane. It’s one of the most poignant lines in the Gospels.
Loving our neighbor as Christ loves us is not an exact science. People will waste our time. We’ll do our best not to be doormats, but many times we won’t be able to discern the “healthy” thing to do. Many times we will gladly empty ourselves and afterward feel like we’ve done nothing, not gotten anywhere, or even enabled someone to continue in his or her disordered behavior.
Certainly we’ll be called upon to help people who will not be able to help back. In fact, that’s the best kind of service. Even the Pharisees will do a tit-for-tat, but Christ’s whole ministry — his life, crucifixion, and resurrection — is by definition a form of self-giving love he knew full well could never be returned.
Keeping score isn’t the point. The point is to stand with Mary, watching and waiting, at the foot of the cross.
“When did we see you hungry or thirsty, Lord?” That time you stood still — and let me walk around you 10 times.