As I was looking at photos of the tragedy in Japan, my mind just reeled. I kept thinking “How in the world will anyone be able to make a difference there, with such overwhelming destruction?” Of course I donated money, but it feels like such a tiny drop in the bucket, doesn’t it? It doesn’t seem enough. Before this happened, I was thinking about writing a blog post about how difficult it can be to want to help our loved ones but to not be able to fix their problems. What’s happened in Japan just mirrors—on a grander scale—the frustrating reality that we can only do so much, no matter how much we want to jump in and save the day.
Last week, in one day, no fewer than four people I know and care deeply for let me know they were struggling. I was beside myself the whole morning wanting to save them. I came up with half-baked plans to raise money for a friend who’s sick with no health insurance, stopped myself from sending unsolicited advice to a friend who’s trying to decide the best way to support his teenage daughter, and talked on the phone with two people who were struggling with depression, anxiety, and interpersonal conflict. I almost felt frantic that morning, with wanting to help and not knowing how. If I could, I’d send my one friend enough money to pay for health insurance and a good doctor, I’d get my other friend a wonderful job, I’d somehow impart to the others the wisdom to know exactly what to do to in their situations to make everything work out perfectly. But of course, I can’t do that.
Another factor is that, for the first time in awhile, I feel pretty good and strong. Maybe even happy, even though things are, as always, imperfect. Shouldn’t I then be able to use my superpowers to bring everyone else in my orbit happiness, as well?
I think one of the hardest things we can experience is to know our loved ones are suffering and to not be able to take their suffering away. We can rationalize that to ease their suffering might dilute the strength of the lessons they’re meant to learn, but when we care for someone who’s hurting, we don’t care about that other stuff. We just want them to feel better, and to be able to fully embody their true, beautiful nature without all of this struggle and pain.
I sat in meditation and wanted to do tonglen for someone who was suffering. When I thought of who to focus on, I couldn’t decide. So I gave up and did it for everyone, and for the entire planet.
I’ve come to realize that the only thing we can do in these situations is to witness our loved ones’ struggles. We can listen to them with patience and compassion, even if we’ve heard the same story a thousand times. We can challenge them, if it seems appropriate. But we can’t save them. We can only be there for them with the resources we have, even our only resources are our open hearts and our words. But this still doesn’t seem like enough to me, and neither does sending them love and healing in meditation. When the chips are down, what’s all this woo-woo stuff got to do with anything? On the other hand, what are the alternatives? I can’t send all my money, I can’t get my friend a job, and I certainly have no idea how to motivate a teenager.
So, I sit with the energy of wanting to help, try to be there in the ways that I can, and do something I’m pretty good at: witnessing peoples’ experience with respect and open-mindedness. It’s my gift and it’s all I have, really.
To L I send healing. To S I send patience. To D I send compassion—I know how it feels, believe me. To M I send strength. To my mom I send openness. To J I send the energy of moving forward with joy. And to the people of Japan, I send all of these things and more. You are all in my heart. It doesn’t seem like enough, but it will have to be.