Image: A person opens his shirt to reveal the Superman logo. (NeuPaddy/pixabay)
We are in a vortex of natural and unnatural disasters as I write this (October, 2017.) The mass murder in Las Vegas, Hurricanes Harvey, Irma, and Maria, and the hideous fires in the West are only the major ones. It seems like terrible things are happening all over the place. It’s part of the human condition that tzuris happens – bad things happen in every life.
One of the best impulses in the human heart is our desire to help. Sometimes we can send cash. Sometimes we can volunteer to send goods to where they are needed. But sometimes we are faced with another human being in distress, and we need to know what to do. Fortunately for us, Jewish tradition has a lot to offer on the subject.
Our nervous systems are wired to feel distress when others feel distress. A crying baby gets a range of reactions from bystanders: compassion, irritation, anger, even headaches. Our reaction, whatever it is, is part of a natural response to the pain of another human being. We evolved to respond to wailing infants and to distressed members of our tribe: we hear or see distress, and we feel anxiety, an urge to do something. That anxiety has many expressions: compassion, an urge to fix what is wrong, irritation, anger, or even a headache.
We are wired to leap in and fix it, to make the crying stop. If the problem is a hungry baby, that’s one thing. But what if the problem is something that is complex to fix, or that cannot be fixed at all?
Our sages recognize this impulse and its hazards in the Mishnah:
Rabbi Shimon ben Elazar says: Do not assuage the anger of your friend at the time of his anger; do not console him at the time when his deceased lies before him. – Pirkei Avot, 4:18
It hurts us to listen to the pain of another, so we leap in and try to repair things. Sadly, some things are not easily fixed. When our dead lie before us, nothing can repair the damage. Even the slow healing of time is only a partial repair when the loss is profound. When we have been hurt, when we have been wounded, there is no quick fix. Rabbi Shimon advises us not to say anything that might seem dismissive. When the pain is greatest, “fixes” do not console. The pain is real. It has to be felt.
So what are we to do, when someone is mourning a loved one? When people are crying about lost homes, or a livelihood destroyed? What are we to say to someone who has lost a place they loved? What can we say to the person who is choking on fumes from a far-away fire? What can we do for the person who has no visible loss but who feels overwhelmed by frightening events?
I am grateful for the guidance of our tradition as I navigate all this pain:
The reward for escorting a stranger is greater than any reward. It is a practice introduced by our father Abraham, a way of kindness which was habitual with him. He served food and drink to wayfarers and escorted them. Hospitality to wayfarers is greater than welcoming the Divine Presence, as it is written: “He saw three men … he ran to meet them” (Genesis 18:2). Escorting them is even greater than receiving them. The sages have declared: “Anyone who does not escort his guests is almost guilty of bloodshed” (Sotah 46b). – Maimonides in Mishneh Torah, “Mourners,” 14:2.
One might read the passage above and say, “How does this address the question?” Let’s break it down:
- “Escorting a stranger” – the simplest way to read this is to talk about a newcomer to a place: a visitor, a tourist, an immigrant. However, anyone who has ever been in a major disaster will tell you that they feel like a stranger in a strange land. Nothing looks familiar anymore, even the things that haven’t changed. A single catastrophic loss can do that. So the “stranger” of our passage may well be the person who got shot at and survived, or whose home blew to bits, or whose neighborhood burt down. Sure, they are alive – but now they feel strange.
- “He served food and drink” – We can offer sustenance to those who are hurting. Water and food allows life to continue, and someone who has been through a trauma may need them more than they realize.
- “Receiving them” – We can provide a safe place to sit or lie down. A person cannot recover, even a little bit, if they cannot rest.
- “Escorting them” – What does it mean to escort someone? It means to accompany them, to walk alongside them for a while. If I escort someone to a place, I don’t hurl them from my car and drive away: I go with them. The Hebrew word is levayah (leh-vah-YAH.) A funeral is levayat hamet, accompanying the dead person to the grave. We do not abandon dead bodies; we go in groups with them to the grave and put it gently in the earth.
- “Escorting them is even greater” – When I accompany a stranger, I walk alongside them through their experience. It is their experience, not mine, so mostly I listen and look and keep them company. As Maimonides teaches, this is one of the greatest gifts we can give to a person who is suffering from estrangement: we can simply be with them.
How do these texts translate into actual help? Here are eight things we can do when we are faced with someone who is suffering:
- FIRST, DO NO HARM. No matter how badly we want someone to stop hurting, leaping to solutions isn’t helpful. I find that sometimes I have to remind myself as I listen to someone, “NO FIXING.” Since I have no magic wand, I cannot do or say anything that will magically make them feel better. Even if I had a magic wand, it could not repair the damage done by the experience of trauma.
- OFFER WATER. People who have lost a lot of fluid through sweating or crying need water. They may be so lost in pain that they are not feeling thirst. If they ARE thirsty, then so much the moreso I should give them water to drink!
- OFFER FOOD. “I’m fixing/getting a sandwich – want one?” is a way to offer food without stirring up feelings of indebtedness. This helps people on a multiplicity of levels, from needed nutrition to a feeling of social connction. This is not a time for a nutrition or (God forbid) weight loss lecture. “I’m having something – want some?” is a way to build a bridge back to a tiny oasis of normalcy.
- OFFER A SAFE PLACE. If you have the privilege of offering a guest room, that can be great. But that “safe place” can be a ride to a destination, a seat next to you, an afternoon at your house, or an invitation to your table for Shabbat dinner.
- OFFER SILENCE. Sometimes “receiving them” to a safe place can mean offering them the opportunity to be in your space without having to talk about the disaster at hand. The tradition teaches us to support mourners at shivah by being silent until they speak first, and letting them set the topic. When much of life seems like chaos, a quiet place with no demands can be a real haven.
- LISTEN. If they want to talk, listen to them. Make eye contact and pay attention. You are a witness to their experience. Resist the urge to say much. If they are a person who “thinks out loud” they may need to sort through their thoughts, and what they say may not make much sense. Do not interfere or advise unless they talk about a dangerous plan (e.g. “I’m going back to the fire zone to see my house – I don’t care what anyone says!”)
- MAKE REFERRALS. I think the most important thing I learned in my pastoral counseling classes was to make referrals. After you have really heard a person out, if you know of someone qualified to help with some aspect of their situation, put them in touch. There may be more “escorting the stranger” to do here: if going to the therapist, or the police, or the FEMA website is overwhelming to them, offer transportation or a chair next to you at a computer to do what needs to be done.
- BE A COMPANION. For however long or short your interaction, remember that you are neither their child nor their parent. Don’t make a suffering person take care of you, and don’t tell an adult what to do. Walk alongside them. Be good company as they traverse a strange landscape.
- REST. – No one can be a high quality helper 24/7. When we are tempted to give advice, to meddle, to scold, or something else inappropriate, it is our sign that we are overdue for a break. Self-care is an important part of being a caring person. There is no shame in handing an unhappy person along to someone who is better equipped to deal with them right now.
None of us are Superman. We are each limited in some way. What we have to offer is our humanity. May each of us rise to the challenge when the need arises!