Tuesday, January 29, 2019

Why is It So Hard to Just "Be Together"?

There is a great and very necessary mode of loving in which people discover the value of just be-ing together.

Too often we think the only reason to actually be with others is to accomplish a common work. We get together in order to do things, and then we go back to being (more-or-less) solitary individuals.

We feel awkward and inadequate just "being around" a person if we don't see any way of being useful to them. This feeling is especially acute when we find ourselves with people who have problems or are suffering. What can we do for them? This question might raise intense, complex, even frightening emotions.

Of course, many of us have some sense of "just being together" through the fullness we experience in the company of a spouse, family members, and very intimate friends. When we are with these persons, things we do together and ways we help one another are "built-in" to the dynamic of being together. In a healthy companionship many interactions become almost "natural"—which doesn't mean mechanical and meaningless but quite the opposite: it means the habitual realization of freedom in integrally human gestures of self-giving full of personal vitality.

Suffering, however, raises a distinctive kind of challenge even for these relationships. When someone we love endures a great and debilitating suffering, we may find ourselves running out of ideas for how to "help" them. We suddenly feel incompetent, and might think we are "letting down" our friend or loved one. This is most difficult when we really can't do anything (or anything more) to resolve their problem or help them.

Here we need to see the value of "just be-ing together." We can remain with them, and recognize that our sense of being powerless is linked to their own utter vulnerability in suffering. The bond of love and friendship that unites us means that their pain is going to affect us. Just by staying with them, we can live the very precious gift of friendship, and affirm its reality. A true friend can "share" and accompany the pain and struggles, anxiety and suffering of their friend by an empathy that draws on the bond of the relationship itself.

This can mean just being with a friend even when there is no immediate thing we can do or say, because there is no "solution" and there are no words for what is happening. Still, we can be together, we can be with them, we can be present in solidarity and love.

This is more difficult than we might think. We have a kind of natural inclination to distance ourselves from another person who is suffering, especially when we feel like we can't fix their problem, ultimately because it forces us to face the deeper levels of our own radical "helplessness," the fundamental limits of our resources as finite persons. That's very hard, because we tend toward wanting to possess and control the circumstances of reality (even in relationships). Deep down, we live with the assumption that we are self-sufficient.

This is what makes us tend toward a hyperprotectiveness of the total environment of ourselves and those we care about. We want to build a fortress out of life so we can be safe. Why?

Because we are afraid.

The more we are fixated on "keeping our lives," i.e. measuring their meaning according to our own limited measure, the greater our fear.

Too often in our society today, people know only their own measure. They don't want to see their limits, beyond which their interpretation of reality loses coherence, and (so it seems) all meaning and value slip away. People distance themselves from anything or anyone that interrupts their distracted preoccupation with the apparently controllable aspects of reality and makes them face those radical limits.

People are very afraid.

And it is terrifying to be helpless and alone and losing something (or someone) into the void of an ultimately meaningless universe that is not held in the hands of Infinite Love. People are secretly afraid that life has no permanent meaning, that love doesn't win in the end, that everything is swallowed up by nothingness.

Those of us who believe in Jesus and worship God also feel this fear and sense of helplessness, because ultimately we walk by faith in the One who is true, good, and beautiful, but who is also the Infinite Mystery. Faith does not "resolve" the mystery of God or of reality; it brings it close to us and gives us a path and a reason to hope even in the valley of the shadow of death.

The Mystery has entered our history and made the path for us. Jesus didn't say He had come to explain the often difficult ways and obscure challenges of our lives. He said, "I am the way, the truth, and the life." He says, "follow me" not to form an exclusive club, but (among other things) to draw us more intensely into the experience of being human, all the way to the Cross.

So even in faith we feel this great fragility of being human, this sense of "helplessness"—but we learn that it is rooted in our need to live in dependence on something greater than ourselves (on the One who lovingly holds our destiny and accompanies us and every human being). Even in the anguish of our lives and the intense feeling of fear and loss, He is opening a path for us and a "space" inside us so He can lead us and shape for us a good and beautiful fulfillment that we cannot yet "understand."

We live in the world with a HOPE for a transcendent fulfillment in which everything that is real and good is transformed, and therefore "nothing is lost." Often we can't see what this means for our concrete aspirations, circumstances, and relationships, or why there is still so much experience of frustration and loss (so much of the incomprehensible element of "sacrifice" that we don't grasp even when we know it's necessary).

We don't see the whole meaning of it; indeed, we see very little in the obscurity of faith. But Jesus sees. He has endured it all and He is risen. He lives (indeed He is) the fullness of being human and He stays with us... even in the unbearable silence of our incapacity to fathom our own weakness.

Jesus knows that we will forget and fail, become afraid and run away, just like the disciples in the Gospels. He will seek us and find us, like the Good Shepherd that He is, and approach us with His open heart full of forgiveness and renewal.

But how beautiful it is to remember Him, and find courage in Him to love and be a companion to another human person, to be with that person with their inexpressible pain.

Life is an immense, beautiful, mysterious gift. We must do our best to be good stewards of the wonders entrusted to us, to act prudently and responsibly to improve our own lives, our families, our communities. We must recognize and build up the good.

But we are not the source of goodness and meaning. We do not control reality. We are not masters, but servants.

We don't need the power to build the world to our own measure, to grasp what we determine to be good for us and flee from (or make war against) what we think threatens our self-asserted power. God alone is good. What we do need is the experience of being loved by Him.

Jesus has come to give us God's love.

And when we know we are loved by Him, we become instruments through which He can bring the experience of being loved to others.

The giving and receiving of love through helping one another is especially needed in these tumultuous times. We need to offer a true attentive love for the particular person, the way we know God loves us. There is much of just "being-with" others in this love, unabtrusive accompanying, listening, being present—with the remembrance of God's love and our destiny of being transformed in Him, Jesus.

For this we must pray a lot, from the heart, worship, love Him, bring everything to Him. From prayer, we can shape all of life into prayer, into loving Jesus. And we need the Church and the sacraments (the concrete "moments" in which the Lord breaks in, even physically, to touch the history of our lives). We need to insert our lives within the time of the Church and walk the incarnate path of ecclesial life, patiently, because learning to love takes time.

We forget Jesus. I forget Him 99.9 percent of the day. But in the Church we are reminded, and we can open our hearts and allow His grace to transforms us, in His time and according to His goodness and love.