I wasn't flattered when one of my daughters confided that she had thought of me as "The Big There-There" when she was three years old. If I remember correctly, I was in the middle of a phase where I was hoping to reassure myself that I still had a fertile mind as well as a welcoming bosom.
Now, years later, I can admit that the role of Big There-There is a necessary part of parenthood not to be disparaged. At times even the most mature of us want someone to dry our eyes, encircle us with welcoming arms, and offer us a cup of hot cocoa. I shall be forever grateful to my friend Ruth, who interrupted her political campaign to ride to the hospital, make her way past the folks in intensive care with convincing stories that I was her little sister, and reach bravely through the thicket of I.V.s, heart monitors, and breathing tubes to embrace me.
Still, the origin of the word "comfort" means "to make strong." As comforters, we often believe we have to take away the pain, only to discover that we are only able to help those in pain find the sources of their own strength. At times it is our mere presence. "I am here. I see your suffering. I care for you." At times it is a helping hand. "I'll vacuum. I'll wash up these dishes. I'll drive you." At times, it is a few words that put things in perspective.
We're never quite sure what will truly comfort another, or what special act will comfort us. We go looking for a "Big There-There" and find instead that the excitement of a new idea lifts us from despair. I expected little solace from my frail ninety-year-old father when he called me in the hospital to see how I was, but when he called me "Punky" for the first time in fifty-four years, I felt the fidelity of that relationship. My narrow room was filled with memory and hope.
Perhaps those of us who would be comforters could learn from the medieval scholastic who wrote so long ago, "Work, therefore, in what you do, from love and not from fear."
If we can put aside our fear that we might say or do something to add inadvertently to the suffering of those we would comfort, if we can put aside our fear of our own loss or the pain of our own pity, then love might find its way of bringing strength to the weak and light to those in the shadows.