How Do We Help One Another
By Reverend Tom Capo
Delivered on 5/24/2015
And yet, this community, we, are not like one of Shakespeare’s fictional characters. Our bounty is not “boundless as the sea.” And so many times, though we love truly and deeply, we don’t find that “the more [love we] give… the more [we] have” to give. While there is truth in how our hearts can grow as we share our love with one another and with people in need, unlike a fictional character, our love is not infinite. We are human, and like it or not, we have limits.
Many of us have been working long and hard this year helping members and friends who are in need, and I’ve wondered about whether some of us might experience some compassion fatigue.
“You cannot say, I need you
So you say, I like your shoes
I cannot say, I see your gods have failed you
So I say, your eyes look so sad
You fold your arms, the sentences for my crimes is life
I lean in, let’s look at those chains
You look past me, eyes wide, I am alone
And the night is coming for me
My heart pounds
Knowing what waits there
Your breath stops to keep
The next door locked and shut
But my left foot
Is already in it
Outside the trees
Are restless with light
In the settling quiet
Each filament of dust
Streaming in from earth or star
Delivers us, mote by mote
From the hour of undoing
Into the hour of mercy
On what wings
We cannot say”
This poem was written by psychotherapist, mystic, and poet Frances Hatfield.
I want to be clear that we will always have people in need in the congregation and we should be willing as a community to step up and be there to help them. This sermon is not about telling people who are in pain, who are suffering, to “suck it up.” This sermon is about how we care for others and care for ourselves.
At one time or another, all of us, every one of us in this community, will be in need—when someone we love dies, when we lose a job, when we suffer a disaster; we are all breakable, subject to damage—physically, mentally, emotionally-- and subject to the stresses, chaos, unforeseen circumstances, genetics that we have no control over that will impact our lives.
We are a beloved community. This means that we want to encourage those who are in pain, hurt, damaged in some way, to ask for help from us because we love them. I know that you want to be able to help everyone who asks. And I want us to be able to express our love to one another, especially when we know someone in this community is in need. The big question for me is how do we care for one another as a church community?
And from that comes questions like: What does it mean “to get support from this church.” What does it look like? Does it always look the same? What does it mean if one or two congregants give emotional or spiritual aid to a hurting member? Does getting help from one or two members “count” as getting support from this church? If not, why not?
“What is it, to suffer? Is it to allow myself to be as I am, to stay with myself as I am? To suffer my neighbor to be as he or she is—to stay with closely, not expecting them to be other than how they are? First I need to find the possibility of allowing, of accepting however I find myself to be, before I can extend that sympathy to another being. In such suffering may be born a moment of being more of who I really am, really experiencing who my neighbor is, and through that may come for a moment the joy of everything being more in place, a sense of order appearing.”
This was written by spiritual teacher Georges Ivanovich Gurdjieff's first American pupil, Rosemary Nott
Like any “good” Unitarian Universalist minister, I do not have the “right” answers to the many questions that I have posed. However, I do have some thoughts. I do believe that the most important thing we can offer one another is love, emotional support, an ear to listen, a shoulder to cry on, an arm to lean upon, and an open heart to share the pain of another.
After many of our Services, you will find a member of the Companions Group or the PMA sitting at the back of the sanctuary. They are there simply to listen to those who cannot give voice to a concern or sorrow in front of all of us. They don’t judge; they don’t psychologize or try to solve your problem. They are there to offer a safe nurturing space for you to share what you feel comfortable sharing. Some of us are so private that sharing concerns, sorrows, or needs is too difficult, too daunting. And yet, we’re still here to walk with you on the rocky parts of the road. When you are ready to share, we will be here for you.
Many of us, myself included, are fixers and eager to give advice or referrals. But my belief is that we are better suited to walk alongside a person who is struggling--listening, companioning them as they find their way--rather than pointing them to the solution, a solution that might or might not work for their situation or for who he/she is as a person. When we, myself included, try to fix someone else’s problem for them, we inadvertently send a message of disempowerment, of dependence. I want to be very clear about what I am saying here. Fixing the problem is different from offering support to the person who is experiencing the problem. Fixing a problem for someone is a short-term solution that has its locus in you, the fixer. Offering support to the person experiencing the problem empowers that person by setting the locus of problem-solving in that person, the person who “owns” the problem.
Remember what I said in the child dedication: “There will be some pain in his life that we cannot protect him from, but through the pain we will be with him.” Everyone we love, everyone we are in relationship with, including those in this congregation, needs us to walk with them through the pain they experience, as they heal, as they find their own solutions.
Sometimes people here don’t need a companion; they need some resources. They need people to move things, mow lawns, change tires; or they need money to pay rent, to buy food, to get gas; or they need things like furniture, a car, clothing. There is money in our Ministerial Discretionary Fund to help congregants in need, but the amount is limited. Some of you have offered additional funds to help those in need. Some of you have driven people to appointments, fixed someone’s tires, given or loaned clothing. Our TLC Committee has helped organize some of this help, but some of this help has been spontaneous. When the need is expressed, there is someone to help. Many of you have given to others here in ways that I am not even aware of. You take care of each other. It is one of the many things I love about this church; one of the things I love about all of you.
“Let your life speak. Have the patience to be silent and listen for truth. Then have the courage to let the best that is in you direct your actions. Recognize that your true identity is nothing more or less than the way in which you conduct your public and private affairs—the way which, for good or ill, you let your life speak.”
This was written by the former headmaster of Sidwell Friends School in Washington. D.C., the country's largest Quaker day school, Robert Lawrence Smith.
Our love is “boundless as the sea.” Our love, however, is housed in bodies that grow tired, emotions that become frayed, spirits that become weary with caring so very much about what happens to the people we love. Realistically, we all have limits. What are those limits? And what happens if we push our limits?
Imagine a pot filled with cold water. A frog is quietly swimming in it. The fire is lit under that pot. Water slowly begins warming up. Soon it becomes lukewarm. The frog finds this rather pleasant and keeps swimming. The temperature slowly keeps rising. Water is now warm. It’s a little more than what the frog enjoys; it becomes a bit tired, but it doesn’t panic. Water is now really warm. The frog finds that unpleasant, but it has also become weak. The temperature keeps rising up to the moment the frog is cooked, without ever extracting itself from the pot.
We all know what it feels to be a boiled frog because we have been there at some point in our life. To prevent compassion fatigue we need to pay attention, develop self-awareness and recognize when the temperature is rising, by becoming familiar with the signs given by our body, emotions, and thoughts, such as physical, emotional, mental, or spiritual tiredness, diminished self-care, resentment or even skepticism toward those in need. We are expending mental, emotional, physical and spiritual energy when we help another person. We need to pay attention to our bodies’ messages and notice when feelings of tiredness, of resentment, of skepticism start, and jump out of the pot to take care of themselves for a while, setting ourselves as the priority, before jumping back into the pot to help again.
You all are very giving people. You want to help, especially help friends when they are in need. But sometimes, saying “no, I am not able to help you right now” is the best response to maintain the healthy relationship you have with another person and for the healthy relationship you have with yourself. Much as you may want to, it is not healthy to empty yourself out to help another person. Chances are, they wouldn’t expect you to do that. And you wouldn’t expect someone to do that for you. There is a difference between “give what you are able” and “give til you destroy a relationship or give til it causes you a debilitating illness or give til you have nothing left to give to yourself or anyone else.” That’s not healthy for you, for the person you are helping, or for our community. We have to model for one another appropriate ways to care for one another. This doesn’t mean we help each other all the time, in every situation, expending ourselves until we’ve emptied ourselves out. This means we help one another in ways that we are able, and that we recognize our limitations—limitations with our time, money, any of our resources, including our mental, emotional, and spiritual health. And we realize that we are community—there are others who can help when we are unable to.
Back to a couple of questions I asked at the beginning of this sermon: “What does it mean ‘to get support from this church.’ What does it look like? Does it always look the same? What does it mean if one or two congregants give emotional or spiritual aid to a hurting member?” Does getting help from one or two members “count” as “getting support from this church? If not, why not?” How help is given, who gives the help, will be unique to each situation. My hope is that we all understand that when one of us reaches out to a member who is in need, that is our beloved community reaching out to that person—“The church” is you, each and every one of you. When one of us helps another in this community, the church is helping that person. We are a beloved community and how each one of us treats or helps another is a reflection of this whole community. It may not be the minister who comes to see you in the hospital; it might be Pat Lichtman, or Jack Seacrest or Sue Ross or Jo Linsley or someone else from this community who reaches out to you—and when he/she does, remember it is all of us in spirit who are with him/her in your hospital room, sharing our love.
Mark Morrison-Reed writes: “The central task of a religious community is to unveil the bonds that bind each to all. There is a connectedness, a relationship amid the particulars of our own lives and the lives of others … It is the church that assures us that we are not struggling alone … The religious community is essential, for alone our vision is too narrow to see all that must be seen, and our strength is too limited to do all that must be done. Together, our vision widens and our strength is.” Together, my friends, we help one another. Together we are able to do more and be more for one another. The central task of our church is to love one another and I am here to tell you, the members of this church wake up in the morning and they do that. You do that. You each make a difference in each other’s lives. May we continue to unveil the bonds that bind us one to another in this beloved community. So may it always be.