Among my other duties, I help coordinate the adult education series at the church that I attend. This fall and winter we have had various congregation members speak about the intersection of their vocation and their faith. In other words, how does their faith affect their work, and how does their work help them see God.
When the idea for the series came up, I imagined people speaking about the satisfaction they get from their jobs. While that’s happened, we’ve hear more about enduring difficult times than celebrating joys. Teachers have spoken about schools that are so cash strapped that they don’t buy curriculum for the students, instead telling the teachers to use whatever they can find online. A 22-year-old camp counselor told about overhearing a 15-year-old begging her friends to break her leg so that she would not have to complete a four day canoe trip. The counselor explained how hard it was to get a 15-year-old to understand that getting evacuated by helicopter from the Boundary Waters at night with a broken leg wouldn’t make anything better.
This past Sunday, a former firefighter named Hank spoke about helplessly watching people die, being engulfed in explosions, finding charred corpses in burned out apartments, and accompanying the SWAT team on interventions. He broke down several times, and talked about seeking treatment for PTSD after his wife told him she couldn’t trust him to drive their children anywhere because of how erratic he had become. He ended his talk by thanking the church for giving him a place where he could talk about the demons he was facing, and suggested that we create more opportunities for people to open up about what he called “the crappy parts of life.”
I left feeling overwhelmed. I was glad that our speakers felt comfortable sharing the challenges they faced and how God guided them through, but it wasn’t what I had intended when the series started. I could see the need for honestly talking about problems, but I was worried about crossing the line between being therapeutic and trying to actually provide therapy. When Hank made his comment, I thought, “We aren’t equipped for this. We aren’t therapists.”
And then I remembered that Sigmund Freud published his first writing less than 150 years ago. Everything that I think of as “therapy” had come along since then. For tens of thousands of years before that, people dealt with death, war, plagues, and natural disasters without medication, hypnosis, electroshock therapy, or medical insurance. Instead of relying on experts to deal with their challenges, they relied on exactly what the Hank wanted to rely on: their friends and neighbors, their faith, their families, and the assurance that they were not alone in their suffering.
I feel unprepared to deal with Hank’s problems, or with most people’s problems if I am honest. I wish we could all live in a safe world where the biggest problem was that I forgot to get apple sauce when I went to the store. But that isn’t the world we live in. We have to face the nastiness of life, a life which Thomas Hobbes described as solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short. I see why he put solitary first in his list. If we try to get through life on our own, it really will be poor, nasty, brutish, and short. But as Hank pointed out, if we have others around us, life will still be hard, but it will at least be bearable.
May we all find the community we need to get through this life.
by Marti Maltby, Director Peace House Community – A Place to Belong
This article originally appeared in “The Alley,” the newspaper for the Phillips neighborhood of Minneapolis.