I will be leading a retreat at the Terra Sancta Retreat Center in Rapid City, South Dakota in about a month. I started really focusing on the topics of the three talks in earnest today. Thinking and pondering can always be a little dangerous for me. I don't want to blow a fuse. (I guess in modern times the correct wording would be that I don't want to trip a breaker.)
One of the talks I am scheduled to give at the retreat centers on disciples making other disciples. Accompaniment is a popular term used today for this type of relationship. There are many ways to accompany others. However, my personal experience stems from being a wounded healer. I know what it means to be in pain--physically, emotionally, and spiritually. My heart breaks for others who find themselves in these types of difficult struggles.
I took a break for a while from working on my talks and scanned Twitter, Facebook, and checked my emails. There are times I would refer to that as a couple hours of my life that I won't get back. It was different today. I saw multiple things that made me stop and pray.
A young mother was holding her child, maybe a year to 2 years old. The child looked extremely ill, and the pain on the distraught mother's face was evident. Prayers were being sought as the child was being flown to another hospital. Twitter folks blanketed that family in prayer.
A woman named Catherine lost her mom on Wednesday. They told her dad on Thursday that his wife had died. He died the next day on Friday. Twitter folks were blanketing this family in prayer as well.
I will come back to Twitter in a moment, but I want to bounce to email for just a moment. I received notice via email that another entry had been made to a Caring Bridge site that I follow. This individual is undergoing radiation treatments. As I watch the determination and resilience of this individual despite the many challenges, I am grateful for the positive impact he is having on so many people around him. I am not sure I went through chemotherapy with any of that kind of style or grace, but people like him who are able to stay strong through all the ups and downs impress the hell out of me.
Back to Twitter and the concept of accompaniment. I follow a medical doctor on Twitter who is the Director of a Medical School Program on Health, Spirituality, and Religion at a major university. I have never met her in person, but I have been on the same Zoom call as her on a couple of occasions in recent months. She is intelligent, has been published in some respectable journals, is a sought after speaker, and seems to have quite the sense of humor as well.
According to Twitter, if I follow correctly, she has been at Notre Dame this week to give a presentation. This is her tweet this morning:
"I started tearing up and crying briefly last night in an elevator with the two guys I was with and I think by the way they looked and responded that they would have preferred I had collapsed and arrested on the floor instead. Men, why?"
Accompaniment! There is a lot left hanging here because there is not enough information to have proper context. Had the doctor just finished her presentation? Did she meet with people after the presentation? Were they sharing their individual struggles with her? Is the anxiety of public speaking enough for an individual to somehow breathe that sigh of relief when they reach the elevator and know it is finished for the night? What is the relationship between her and the two guys with her? Were they just Notre Dame staff looking out for her well-being? A lot of questions need to be answered to have full context. I am also guessing this could have been a somewhat light-hearted tweet based on real circumstances she experienced. (Maybe she was just upset that the drinks and the hors d'oeuvres ended?)
With all of that being said, I can't get it out of my mind. Why do we respond, or not respond, the way we do to the circumstances confronting us? If you had been in the elevator with the doctor, how would you have responded?
I know I respond much differently to uncomfortable situations because of lived experience. People with cancer who are going through chemotherapy do not scare me. I have first-hand knowledge of what it feels like as you lose your hair, lose your taste buds. lose your strength, lose your dignity as people have to do everything for you, etc. I have no idea how I would respond to that situation if I had never experienced it myself. Would I have any clue as to what to say or not say? I don't know.
Back to the elevator, what is an appropriate response? It would certainly be appropriate to ask, "Are you okay? Is there anything I can do for you?" But there are a lot of reasons why men could feel very uncomfortable in that situation. Once again, not knowing anything about the relationship between the doctor and the two men makes it all a guessing game. If it would be another woman, a hug could obviously be a form of consolation. Men are (hopefully) protectors. However, even a gentle arm around the shoulder to bring comfort could be viewed as inappropriate. Bringing comfort to someone else of the opposite sex could be looked upon as "making a move".
Here is what society has been telling us for a while. Toxic masculinity is a problem. On the other hand, if you show any type of emotion you can be labeled as effeminate. If you are a member of the clergy, people look at you with skepticism from the start. Since the pandemic, I never know what is appropriate in regard to a handshake, a hug, or if I need to wear a mask and stay six feet away. To be fair to the men in the elevator, it was a long shot for them to guess what would be the right thing to do. (Here's a hint--take the stairs next time.)
Bottom line--how do we accompany others on the journey of faith? How do we reach out to those shedding a tear for whatever reason? How do we tend to the lonely and homebound? How do we reach out to those who are sick? How do we accompany those who are grieving the loss of a loved one? We can't stay in the background or in the shadows. We are to bring the light of Christ to everyone we meet.
To the good doctor who posed this simple Twitter question today, thank you. I am sure you are bringing the students in medical school much food for thought in your work. Blessings to you. I am glad you had time to stop in a bookstore and scan the Thomas Merton section before leaving!