In 2005 while undergoing chemotherapy, I was sitting in an uncomfortable recliner on the sixth floor of the medical facility. An IV dripped poison into my veins that would simultaneously cure me of the cancer in my body, and wreak havoc on it, sending waves of nausea, chills, malaise. The concoction did not discriminate between healthy and cancer cells. It killed almost everything. This rendered me alive, but sick, bald, and weak.
As I sat looking out the shaded glass windows which overlooked the busy downtown area where I was receiving this treatment, I remember feeling amazed that as I sat, literally fighting for my life, my world falling apart, not only from cancer but being exhausted having just had a new baby right before my diagnosis, the rest of the world seemed not to care one bit. People carried about their normal activities with no perception about my own personal agony. I watched businessmen in suits on the sidewalk below, hurrying to their destinations. Women with bags of lunch from the deli were laughing as they scurried out of sight. A mother, unlike me, a seemingly healthy mother, was pushing a stroller with a child. The sun rose and traveled across the sky in cheerful apathy to the deep suffering I experienced for six unbearably long hours each chemo session.
Yesterday I was listening to a talk radio program. A teenager who had escaped without injury during the recent Las Vegas shooting had called into the show. She was understandably quite traumatized. Her boyfriend had thrown his body on top of her then they got up and ran. She was scared. She was heartbroken. She felt guilty that she was alive and others weren’t. “The world is just going on around me and I can’t get past this.”
I completely understood.
The practicing psychotherapist talk show host kindly empathized with the girl then made a suggestion I thought was very wise. She suggested the girl go back to Las Vegas, with her boyfriend, and bring flowers and her presence to some of those recovering in the hospital from injuries suffered that same night from the same attack. The professional told the girl to bring cookies and thanks to the firefighters or police on call. “This is will not only benefit you, but them. In this way you will be taking control in a small way and being a light to the world.”
Being a light to the world. Matthew 5:14-16. That’s our only answer to the horrific tragedies and sorrows that come into our lives. When we suffer, we should respond by physically or spiritually offering something back.
As Catholics we know that uniting that suffering to the suffering of Christ can mysteriously be redemptive. But even in the midst of knowing that the suffering has redemptive possibility, the pain still sears. It is then we are most like the Blessed Mother and Saint John, at the foot of the Cross, giving seemingly nothing and yet in reality everything they had, their presence. They suffered with Jesus, even though they could not alleviate the source of His suffering. Their presence must have been a drop of refreshment to Him. Our suffering with Christ can, in a small way, do the same.
To be with someone while they suffer is a great gift. When I was undergoing chemotherapy I always had a companion—my husband, my mother, or another. I noticed how sad it was for those who came in to get treatment alone. After my experience I decided to try to reach out as much as my station in life allows, to people I know who are suffering. It is an imperfect effort, but I strive because it is a debt I owe to those who reached out to me.
What drops of refreshment can we give to those around us? What can we do to ease another’s pains? Can we offer a meal, flowers, kindness, a word? Remember too that our prayers and presence in those circumstances can be balms and channels of grace.
Let us ponder the words of a few saints:
“Not all of us can do great things, but we can do small things with great love.” (St. Teresa of Calcutta)
“It is with the smallest brushes that the artist paints the most exquisitely beautiful pictures.” (St. André Bessette)
“Never miss an opportunity to do good. This good will be our solace…” (St. Francis de Sales)
We cannot do everything. But we can do something. And in that way we will not only bring light to the world but amazingly, we will also find our own burdens lightened.
“Arise, shine; for your light has come, and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you” (Isaiah 60:1).