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The Courage to Care
Picture by Thomas Leuthard
January 21, 2013
I drove up to the Shell Station on Kings Drive on my way into work, intent on getting a 20 oz. diet coke and a pack of Lance crackers on my way into the office, hoping to fuel a productive morning.
As I got out of my car, I walked by a woman in blue surgical scrubs huddled up against the store, shivering and sipping a cup of coffee while clutching a white plastic bag from CMC that clearly contained her clothing. Her face was severely scarred -with stiches all over the right side of her face. I fought my reflex to look away, taking a deep breath, all too aware that I did not want to see or feel her pain.
I recalled an article I read recently about the pain of invisibility that many homeless people feel, so I instinctively knew it was important for me to look her in the eyes and acknowledge her presence, while reserving the right to decide later whether or not to give her money, if asked.
I felt my body stiffen, as if steeling myself would protect me from her pain…I managed a brief smile, nodded and kept walking, refusing to slow my step. When I came out of the store, she looked down and inquired in a soft quavering voice if she could use my phone to call someone to come pick her up. I felt my defenses evaporate, since I had expected she would ask me for money. I said “sure” and went to get my phone out of the car, feeling very aware of how vulnerable I felt witnessing her pain and despair. She quickly explained that she had been attacked by a dog and brought to CMC in an ambulance, without her purse or phone, to get her face stitched up. “I had to ask someone for money just to get this coffee,” she confessed to me, clearly humiliated by having done so.
I handed her the phone. She hesitated and handed it back, asking if I would dial the phone # for her, explaining that she was having trouble with her vision. At that moment, I was so aware of my desire to flee and not feel her pain or feel responsible or obligated in any way. And yet I managed a deep breath, nodded and dialed as she whispered the numbers to me, her eyes locked onto mine. As I handed her the phone, I noticed a small stream of blood trickle down her neck from one of the wounds on her face, all the while fighting my instinct to look away.
She nodded as the person on the other end of the line told her to go back the ER, explaining that someone was on the way to pick her up. She handed the phone back to me, thanking me for letting her use my phone and started walking across the parking lot back towards the hospital. I called after her and offered to give her a ride to the ER several blocks away.
As she got in my car, she started weeping, lamenting that her face would be scarred forever. And she began recounting the details of her trauma. Apparently, it was her friend’s dog that had attacked her. The dog, having just been fed, ran up to her like he was going to lick her face and then attacked her (more tears). I was writhing, so touched by her trauma and pain, wanting to look away and yet I was so moved by her need to share her grief and trauma with me. I found myself fighting the urge to move into action mode, wanting to fix everything by telling her what to do (call a lawyer, get a plastic surgeon).
As I drove her up to the entrance to the ER, I was profoundly aware of my helplessness. As she got out of the car, I told her I would pray for her. She kept saying “You’re so nice, thank you, thank you” behaving as if she did not deserve such kindness or compassion. I think that is what broke my heart wide open.
I felt waves of grief well up inside me – and yet I fought it, preferring to run over these feelings and embody the more empowering energy of “my drive to get things done” than sit with the feelings of helplessness and despair I felt as I wondered what would become of her.
My mind raced to the notion of what I could “do.”
My first thought was of the Tonglen practice taught by Pema Chodron, a Buddhist Nun, where you are encouraged to breathe in the pain and suffering of another human being and then breathe out while praying for their healing and well-being. This is a practice that has been helpful to me over the years when I’ve witnessed the sufferings of others.
More importantly, I said a prayer of thanks for the chance encounter and for the courage to care, knowing our chance meeting would change my life in ways I have yet to understand.