What To Do When Nothing Can Be Done?
In the last few weeks, I can’t tell you how many times I have had to pull my hand back from the phone to keep from calling a retired investment banker I know to talk me down.
But, instead of calling, I have had little conversations with myself based on talks I’ve had over the years with that investment banker, or with my accountant—and I remind myself of their wisdom: the market goes up and down. Or, in this case, the market goes down and up and down and down and up.
And, while I don’t know what it will mean in the long term, I don’t know if any of the economists or pundits can predict with any great certainty what will happen over the next months and years. The global economy is a whole different web of connections and relationships and outcomes than we have seen before. There’s nothing I can do. There are limits to how much thinking about the economy will help.
The last few months I have had to keep learning that there were limits to how much I could help my sister as she was approaching death. We had a little book hospice provided that describes the signs. We kept track of Mel’s temperature and looked at her skin and her weight loss—but for weeks the hospice staff found that her vital signs were holding fairly steady, so we were not alarmed about the few indicators that suggested she was closer to dying than her vitals indicated. Other than the cancer, she had been a pretty healthy fifty-four year old woman.
So, there was nothing much my nephew and I could do except to make sure she was clean and comfortable, give her medications and food on time, and that the TV remote was close by and her ice cup filled.
About the big thing we could do nothing. But, about the small daily, hourly things we could do much. I reminded myself repeatedly to not be irritated with myself for doing something wrong, or for forgetting something, or for some ache of my own. Not just because my small irritations were comparatively beside the point, but also because Mel was very sensitive to changes in our emotional climate.
Our rage at cancer, or at some sub-standard treatment from the oncologist—anger at those things was simply beside the point. I had to figure out more than once that irritability with small things, with things I could not control, were standing in for the Great Thing about which none of us could do anything. Mel had good days and less good days, and some awful days; and we had some beautiful moments together.
When I came back to church two weeks ago, you were all so kind. So many of you hugged me, greeted me, expressed your condolences—and gradually it came to me that of the first dozen or so people that greeted me, every single one of them had lost someone they loved: a father, a brother, a mother, a sister. There was a nephew with a life-threatening illness; a teenage son with a heart problem; a brother-in-law who had died in a car accident. Some of these are recent losses; some came a while back. I don’t know how my mind accessed that knowledge, but with each successive encounter I realized my heart was giving me a gift. The gift of knowing we are all part of the human condition.
I remembered much later that on the outside of his office door my minister had a poster that read: Nearly everyone is dealing with something difficult.
Being held or spoken to softly by each of these people, realizing their losses, does not diminish my loss. What each person shows me, and all of you together, is that we are members of the vast human family. Each of us will be visited by loss, by death, by ill fortune, by events we cannot predict, cannot control; events whose outcome we cannot alter or even delay.
Not all the hard truths are about death. Between an ordinary day and that finality there are other hard truths we encounter that fray the fabric of our lives. Things happen to us that transform what seems like the strong and dependable tapestry of our life into the thinnest, most fragile gauze scrim. We try to see through that veil to the other side, but all we can really discern there are shapes in the mist, moving and uncertain.
Ask the former residents of New Orleans what they thought on August 28th, 2005 about what they might do the next day when Katrina made landfall. Those who had cars headed out. Those that didn’t walked to bridges, or to the Superdome, or chopped holes in their roofs and waited for rescue. They surely guessed their lives would change. But, so much?
I look at what the global markets are doing and I am amazed; and also I am not amazed. Some corner of my mind must be alarmed: I look at the investments my 89-year old mother judiciously planned and tended in her working years, and I hope they will last to support her. I look at my own investment funds and imagine myself preaching somewhere until I am a hundred and four years old or until the market settles down, whichever comes first.
There’s an old saying, “You can’t do anything about the weather.” And, another one, “Only two things are sure, death and taxes.” Let’s make a new old saying: “There are only a few things you can’t do anything about: death, taxes, the weather, and the market. And, life.”
So, what can we do when nothing can be done? When nothing can be done to alter the trajectory of events we did not create. When nothing can be done about outcomes that no amount of expertise or caring can avert?
My mother would say, “Take it one step at a time, honey. Just put one foot in front of the other.” (Not even that makes everything better—my mom took a little tumble the other day—she’s okay now, but we wonder what else is coming.) While hugging me last week, someone whispered, “Be patient with yourself.” Someone else said, “Be selfish now. Take care of yourself.” Zen has a saying, too: “Don’t just do something. Sit there.”
The essential truth of the conundrum—what to do when nothing can be done—seems to lie somewhere between anxiety and faith. Our anxiety seems to be less about the world, about life and its vicissitudes and the groundlessness of life, than it is about us and how we experience uncertainty. It is very hard for us middle-class Americans to not do something. It even seems irresponsible to us to not do something, even when we don’t know exactly what to do. Sometimes I think that our endless modern gadgets and gimcrack distractions are what we do instead of sitting with the anxiety of our uncertainties.
When I think about all the distractions I could choose to take my mind off my troubles, I wonder what some mother in Darfur does, or an out-of-work man in New Orleans, or a woman in Zimbabwe (where inflation is at 11.2 million per cent—I’m not sure how to think about what it means, because it doesn’t make sense to me, when CNN reports that in February, the price of a loaf of bread in the country was less than 200,000 Zimbabwe dollars. Last Monday, that same loaf of bread cost 1.6 trillion Zimbabwe dollars. I wonder what else that woman has to think about as she thinks about buying bread for her family at 1.6 trillion dollars).
When I see that the DOW rose 179 points, or fell 350 points, I don’t feel alarm so much as I think, The DOW is down and my sister has died. I look at the number when it rises and I wonder: The DOW is up and my sister is still dead. Anxiety about events in life is less about events and more about how we inhabit our lives in the midst of these events. Bob Kimball, who was president of Starr King seminary when I studied there, told me about a friend of his who was dying. She told her friends: I don’t want you to manipulate any of this or let me manipulate it, either. In other words, her dying was a part of her life; in some way absolutely ordinary, so no drama, no manipulation.
Life is a mix—always changing, some good, some hard; some scary; much joy, much beauty. But, essentially groundless—the joy comes and goes; the DOW goes down and up. Even the sadness comes and goes. Hurricanes come, and pass over, and floods and wind. And, then, if fortune has it that you live through the thing, and you make it through, you go on living: no drama, no manipulation. Or if fortune has it that family and friends are able to support you, even in extremis, you may go well. Hard, perhaps; dislocating, almost certainly; sad, often; but, absolutely ordinary.
The last evening of my sister’s life a friend came over and she and my nephew sat with Mel in her room and they laughed a lot. At one point the cannula on Mel’s oxygen tube kept slipping sideways out of her nostrils because the little slide gizmo that made the earpieces fit right was uneven. So, Patty evened it up and pushed the little gizmo up the tubes, closer under Mel’s chin. She made it too tight, and Mel jokingly said, “I think that’ll do it,” while sounding like she was being choked. They laughed, I don’t know what all else they laughed about, and it doesn’t matter. Ben and Patty and Mel laughed.
The next morning she was gone. Her spirit was still in the room, that laughter from the night before—but she was gone.
So, what do you do when nothing can be done? I’ve got a list. You probably have your list, too; but this is mine. When nothing can be done, slow down, that is, pause, if only for a few seconds. Breathe. Our Worship Associate, Annette, told me that when she is overcome with worry she goes and finds a recipe. Call a friend. Cry. Walk; exercise. Drink less caffeine and alcohol, and drink more water. Watch television less and daydream more. Do something for someone else. Go visit someone you like. Get quiet. Meditate or pray to whatever God or good you trust receives you. I know some of you do this already. When you do pray, give your praying the weight it deserves. Let it be life giving.
Now, all these suggestions could seem to be only distractions from your anxiety, your grief. It could seem that when you rise from meditation or prayer, all that trouble will be waiting for you, still unresolved, with its motor running, waiting for you to throw it in gear and get it going again.
But it is a fact that quiet meditation, reflection on the good, emptying your mind, watching your breath - over time changes your brain. Facing your fears—what one teacher calls “riding the dragon” rather than fleeing from it—over time actually changes the way your brain works. And, you don’t need to spend a long time doing any of this, either. At Plum Village, Thich Nhat Hanh’s meditation center in the Dordogne in southern France, at random times throughout the day a bell is rung. When the mindfulness bell rings, everyone knows to pause in what they are doing and breathe mindfully three times before returning to whatever they were doing. Just three conscious breaths.
Some teachers suggest that two minutes of meditation is enough—several times a day. Whenever you are tempted to slide into worry or to grip a problem hard, touch the pause button. You don’t even need the bell; just the tension of your own grip can be enough to remind you to pause, let your shoulders drop, and take those three breaths.
And, you do not need to run a little assessment afterwards to see if it has worked—over time, these practices work their changes in you. They don’t solve anything, don’t change the world, but they work their changes in you.
The underlying source of the change is faith. A Twelve Step slogan is Let go and let God. A Christian saying is Give it to Jesus. The writer Anne Lamott has what she calls “God’s In-box,” and when she’s struggling with something hard, she writes it down on a slip of paper, puts it in the box, and lets it go and says, Okay, God, I can’t do this. It’s up to You, now.
It is possible to have faith that you are enough; to know that Life is what it is, and it is enough. Our leaning toward faith and faithfulness is a life posture that may be the conscious aspect of all the tropisms of the living world—birds don’t live very long, but each day they sing at the first light of morning; the flower lasts only a few days, but each day flowers lean toward the sun; the taproot reaches for the water far below the surface of dry ground; the profligacy of nature makes far more squirrels and insects than seems reasonable so that some of them will survive to make more.
Faith just may be the aware, human aspect of Life’s wanting more life, in all its joy and tragedy, in all its sadness, disappointment and grief, in all its finality. All its brevity and beauty.
At last, none of these suggestions—prayer, meditation, watching your breath, exercise—none of these will or can stop us from worrying. But, that’s why they call it practice. Because practice does not lead to perfection, nor an end to anxiety, nor to perfect peace. Practices like these lead us to inhabit our lives, to be present to whatever is our experience, even if nothing can be done to change it, make it better, make hurt be less or make it stop.
So, how can I answer my question—what to do when nothing can be done? Nothing more than: Keep your faith banked and ready to use. That faith is a posture you know. Faithfulness is a gesture familiar to you, as familiar as saying hello to an old friend. Do that, too—tell a friend about your loss—even if, as Ellen, a bereavement counselor, reminded me this morning: You can tell me again how it was. You can tell me again in a year, or in five years, or ten years. We can tell the faith-filled stories again and again, in faith that they will help us heal.
Your faith, your tender faithfulness in the presence of so much in your life that is difficult, sad, unexpected—is what the world depends upon to keep being world. “Sink into the love of those around you for a time.”
The poet, Mary Oliver, writes in her book, Red Bird, the poem “When I Cried for Help:”
Where are you, Angel of Mercy?
Outside in the dusk, among the flowers?
Leaning against the window or the door?
Or waiting, half asleep, in the spare room?
I’m here, said the Angel of Mercy.
I’m everywhere—in the garden, in the house,
and everywhere else on earth—so much
asking, so much to do. Hurry! I need you.
The penultimate answer I can give you, then, as your minister, as a woman recently taken by loss, an answer incomplete as it is, and only partly satisfactory, is that when nothing can be done, we can simply be with each other. In the midst of all that troubles us, that assails us, all that asks for answers when none can be found, we can be with each other in our solitude, we can look upon each other with quiet eyes. For nearly everyone is dealing with something difficult. Nearly everyone. You. I. Each one of us an Angel of Mercy to someone else. So much asking, so many to be with in faithful ways of compassion.
When nothing can be done, Hurry! Sweetly, tenderly—you are needed.
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