My friend Liza, she of the best legs in town, poured me yet another cup of jasmine green tea and settled down to do some moderately serious worrying aloud. She and some of the other women from her church have befriended Sharla, a young woman who moved here a couple of years ago. Sharla is a single mother, which is not a problem for Liza and friends. The problem is that Sharla is also a real handful: needy, demanding, ungrateful, rude, unpleasant, and manipulative as hell, with a strong sense of permanent entitlement. Sharla is the sort of person who the most rabid anti-welfare-anti-single-mother neo-cons would point to and say "Ha! She proves our point!". Which is embarrassing and sometimes maddening to the rest of us.
The obvious sensible response to a person like Sharla is to tell her, in no uncertain terms, to go fry ice. The problem is that Sharla has a whole brood of little ones, two of each: girl, boy, girl, boy, 8, 6, 4, and 2, and she's thinking about going for #5 in spite of the fact that she's doing a really rotten job with the first four. The eldest girl, Jazmynne, is the real mother in the family. The elder boy, Jamie, is a lost soul, the scapegoat, constantly belittled by Sharla and disliked by his teachers. I don't know that much about the younger two, Jaynelle and Jayson, but offhand I'd predict that life doesn't bode well for them. Sometimes the older kids get to school. Sometimes Sharla can't be bothered. Whenever I'm at the supermarket and I find a wailing snot-nosed small child wandering around crying for mommy, I look around for Sharla. Sharla deposits the kids as much as she can with Liza and the others and often doesn't remember to pick them up. Every town has a Sharla or two, and they drive everyone crazy.
So there's poor Liza trying to figure out what to do. On one hand, she's sound and sensible enough to know that there's not much she can do with or for Sharla. Sharla is quite happy just the way she is and, when challenged, she turns into the human equivalent of a rabid wolverine. Sharla does not "do" narcissistic injury. She'd prefer to keep her narcissism just the way it is, thank you. But Liza has had Jamie for a number of weekends, and she can see the damage happening. She tried calling the provincial authorities, but they're only apprehending children in imminent danger of severe physical injury, not children who are being squished like bugs, children who are slowly going down the tubes. Easier (if not more cost-effective) to jail them when they get older and the damage surfaces in antisocial ways.... But Liza, a loving person and a very good mother who has raised her own brood to thriving adulthood, can't help loving Jamie. So she *hurts*, watching the child. And there's nothing she can do about him.
It's human to want to fix things. We'd like to fix the people we see who obviously need the benefit of our loving correction to help them deal with their Problems; we especially like doing this when we're busily not dealing with our own Problems. Find me a persistent people-fixer and I'll show you someone who most likely has unacknowledged issues out the ying-yang. (This, I suspect, is what Jesus had in mind when he was talking about splinters in others' eyes and logs in our own.) But we also want to fix people because their brokenness bothers us so much. It's disturbing and unpleasant to watch someone else yelling in pain, or curled up in a ball on the floor, or running briskly off a cliff, or otherwise being (in) trouble. It *hurts*, if we care.
But Liza is going to have to live on the horns of this particular dilemma. She knows Jamie needs what crumbs of love she can give him, but she also knows that nothing she can give him can make up for what his mother is doing to him; already he's a badly damaged kid. She knows that Sharla will fight off the whole notion of change as the Swiss would fight off an invader. So: should she simply disengage? Is it worth it, to do this sort of suffering when it can do no practical good? I can't tell her, one way or the other. To stop hurting for Jamie, she would have to stop loving Jamie, and she's probably the only person in the world who does love Jamie. I can hope (although Liza doubts it) that her love gives Jamie a tiny taste of what Normal ought to be like. Liza says no; that Jamie desperately wants the one thing that he can't have: his mother's love.
This is such a terribly broken world, a world in which children maim each other, a world in which war and starvation and persecution are normal and aggression is thought to be a sign of strength, This is a world in which narcissists like Sharla produce babies they quite casually destroy as people. And there's so little we can do to stop it all.
If you're going to be a Christian and live in this world according to the Great Commandment, you are going to do a fair bit of hurting. You will continually witness suffering that you can't do a damned thing about, except to suffer with the sufferers. I think of the Canadian general who was the UN commander in Rwanda, watching the slaughter without being able to stop it--he had begged for reinforcements, but the UN had said no. He could have asked for himself and his men to be pulled out; that would have been quite legitimate. He didn't. They hung on helplessly through the atrocities, and they will suffer the rest of their lives from post-traumatic stress disorder--and they will know that what they went through was peanuts compared to what the Tutsis went through. How can we not call them heros?
The "sensible" thing to do is to disengage emotionally: I can't take on the whole suffering of the world and still keep up with the laundry and get my writing done. True. But some bits of companionable suffering do seem to be mine, and I find I can't shirk them: they are mine for a reason, even if I don't know what the reason is. Last week, that general got into the papers again, and I found myself walking alongside him in spirit, and it was no fun at all, and of course it couldn't help him at all on a practical level. But I sensed that somehow, that's what I was supposed to be doing, so I did it.
The comfort, if comfort it is, is that God does exactly what we're doing, except on a much huger scale. I would like to think that the hurting Liza does for Jamie does something to take a little of the hurt off God, but I don't know.... What I do believe, right down to my toenails, is that this sort of suffering in love is probably an inevitable part of caring at all. And I do believe that in the end, when God is completely done with things, the love will still be there, but the suffering will be flooded out, transmuted into joy, as God's grace runs forward and back in time like a bead on a string.
Pray for the Jamies and their sibs; pray for Sharla, who is like this because she is herself so terribly badly damaged; pray for all who suffer and who inflict suffering, and for all those Lizas who are willing to walk along with them and try what love can do.