That feeling of helplessness.
You know when you watch your baby sister, seemingly frozen in midair and about to skin her knee on the driveway? You’re too far away in your seat by the living room window, so you wish for God to cushion her fall with his mighty hand. That is the easiest kind of helplessness. You know that when you rush out and hold her, drying her tears, that everything will be okay. The Band-Aid will stay on for about twenty minutes, but she’ll forget about the scrape even ten minutes before that.
I wish for that childish feeling as I watch my classmates, friends, and siblings frozen in midair, inches away from things larger and more damaging than a scraped knee. This kind of helplessness sinks into your chest and settles between your lungs and stews underneath your sweater. It holds on with both hands, squeezing the middle of your sentences. Or, it deprives you of air when air should be plentiful, like your evening cup of tea or your morning walk around the cul-de-sac. It is silent and malicious, striking you down cold and quiet in your bed. It is beautiful and frustrating and completely fallen, but godly, too.
I’ve had friends who have taken their own lives, sacrificed their own freedom, and suffered from the actions of others. Here’s the question that sits in my lungs and squeezes and squeaks but does not breathe — is it easier to know and watch helplessly, or to learn about it after the fact, ignorant and innocent?
My middle school best friend drifted from my student government vice-presidential running mate to the unpresidential subject of hallway gossip. Rachel was dating the smart-but-ugly guy, and we all heard that they, you know, went all the way and then broke up, and why would they, when they seemed so in love? Yet, she seemed happier for the change, bright, intelligent and lively.
None of us aware that underneath the navy-and-white striped sweater she wore on the hot spring day were striped, red scars of her own doing. I had distanced myself to nothing more than a friendly acquaintance and knew least of all of her inner conflict, only now vaguely remembering the suitcases hanging under her eyes —weary and worn and empty.
Rachel left her life on a rope in the woods the morning of September 1st, 2008. Her brother found her in the dark of early morning, flashlight in hand. He hoped to spook her , but she was already so cold.
Mourning her loss became trendy to me and all of her tenth-grade peers. Alongside my public desire to fit in, I slept on my parents’ floor for three weeks after her death. I replayed the decay of our friendship over and over, trying to justify my distance, prove my right to grieve. Was it fair for me to grieve when my attachment was already two years old at her passing? My eyes wept waves of salt water that crashed onto my cheeks and pillow. I let the sleeping bag cover me completely, pretending it was weeks earlier, or pretending Rachel’s spirit would come to comfort me, even though such visiting privileges were probably reserved for more worthy, more loyal friends. I could hear my parents whispering about me, helpless, but I didn’t mind. They were close and they were alive, breathing freely in the dark.
At the beginning of every September I fall to my knees, panting in prayer for her, guilty that my days are so full of life.
Lazarus cherished his sisters, and they were all loyal to Jesus. Mary and Martha showed their love in different ways; Mary was a listener and a learner. Martha was a worker and a giver. Lazarus would sit at the table and soak it all in.
Jesus loved them so much that when He heard Lazarus was sick, he traveled miles to comfort his sisters; he already knew Lazarus was dying. Yet, he was already climbing out of the machine like the mythical, thunderbolt-clad Zeus in ancient Greece; he was there to “awake him out of sleep,” as if Lazarus and his sisters were children having a bad dream.
I met Melanie in college. She was compassionate and forgiving and insecure, a combination that made her easy to love, but also easy to abuse. Her ex-fiancé, a victim of abuse himself, knew his wandering hands wouldn’t be swatted, pushed, or even mentioned. How crappy it is, she said, to feel guilty about something that was done to you.
He overreacted to the small stuff, armed with words that made me blush as his raised voice carried beyond Melanie’s phone and into our shared room. Other times I listened calmly as she picked at the loose threads on her blouse, nervous to tell him about some male friend that had come over to help with math homework. I ignored messages from him asking what she and I were up to, knowing he was only checking to see if I knew where she was. One day his hands wandered too far—he found some other girl and inhaled her just as quickly and thoroughly as he had my friend. And suddenly she was no longer stifled by him, at least for a breath.
It was a moment of clarity. She could finally see and I was not the only one wishing him away. The realization burned away some of the tension that was always present, almost like a tangible force suspended between our adjacent twin beds.
She wrapped her arms tightly around her knees, her back against the bed frame. Her tears slipped out so quietly she hardly noticed them as she told me over, and over, and over again about the things he’d done. I forced myself to listen.
“I feel like a chewed piece of gum,” she said.
The disciples had difficulty understanding Jesus sometimes. John understood more than the others; he knew Lazarus was dead and Jesus would take care of it. It’s funny that they’d seen so much in their time with Him and still couldn’t wrap their brains around your average, everyday miracles. I’m glad John understood. I wonder if he appreciated it more.
She asked if I would sleep next to her, both of us uncomfortable, yet, she was tucked safely between a window and a friend. I wanted to pray God out of the heavens. I wanted for Him to cradle and protect her from herself. But I already knew he wouldn’t; he won’t take away our agency, and he has the scars to prove it.
It was easy for her to justify his behavior because it meant she didn’t have to feel chewed. If she pretended he’d never done anything that bad, that those not-that-bad things didn’t make him a bad person, she wasn’t giving up on him. Shouldn’t she try to do the Christ-like thing and help?
Suddenly he was more cheerful than I’d ever seen him, cleaning our kitchen, washing away her resolve with lemon-scented cleaner. To me, his sins were still a shocking scarlet, seeping brightly from behind a hastily-shut door. But I knew the fight was over, and as easily as Melanie had forgiven him, I rationalized my helpless silence.
That’s when I started having trouble breathing.
Don’t you understand now why Jesus wept? Yes, it seems almost foolish that He broke down minutes or hours before He, you know, did His thing and brought Lazarus back to life. He knew the separation was temporary and reversible.
I think He wept for those of us He can’t bring right back to life, or save from emotional hurt, pull away from toxic lovers, push out of the way of a moving train. He wept because He knew soon the time He had left to prove His divinity would die with Him on the cross, and we would all be left to our own fallen devices, crawling by faith. And then his lungs collapsed under the pressure.
I’ve been taught that our Father won’t take away our power of choice. That He, too, sits in breathless sorrow while we jump and roll and crawl through mortality.
But Jesus is the Light, and I bet it’s painful for Him to be the source, to be able to see us so clearly. Because of Him I’m never in the dark. Sharp pains in my empty lungs come from my sister’s miscarriage and my grandmother’s dementia. They come from my childhood friend, haunted by flashbacks of a dimly lit locker room where she thought she was alone—if only she had been. They come from my mentor’s lost faith and gained addiction.
And I weep, too, because my own failures seem so insignificant by light of day.
Is the air thick and stale, or does my body reject that which is pure and plentiful? This type of self-destruction feels deserved, even necessary. I willingly sacrifice my happiness on the altar of helplessness. How dare I care so much and not have the power to change anything? Unawareness of my loved ones’ pain (until it’s too late) is like ripping off a Band-Aid: it steals my breath for a sting, but it’s over. It cannot be helped.