Monday, September 8, 2008

enumerating powers

“A mouse is miracle enough to stagger sextillions of infidels.”
-- Walt Whitman, Leaves of Grass

It seems I have powers. People who work with me, and see the lives that touch me, say that I “change lives.” My standard liberal Problem of Belief – infidel that I am – has two things to ask about this. It asks if this claim can be true; and it asks, if it is true, is it a good thing?

The doctor and the nurse have power to alter the physical condition of a body. The social worker has power to invoke secular systems of support. What power have I, a “spiritual counselor,” to “change lives”? What are they talking about? What is this miracle of which I stand accused?

I am learning to enumerate powers. I called them (July 28) “Powers to Hear, to Travel, to Name and to Bless.” I am happy with three of these names for power, but the fourth one not so much. If I Hear the client’s story, I change him into a Person Who Has Been Heard. If I Name his situation, I change his world into a World That Has Been Named. If I Bless his hope, I make his hope a Blessed Hope. But “Travel”? What is that? It doesn’t parallel the others. It doesn’t explain itself. It’s incomplete. And it violates the rule of three.

Like a Pythonist announcing the Spanish Inquisition, I cannot keep the number of my powers down. My chief weapons are three – no, four. And the fourth is a problem. Where do I propose to travel, and why?

“To hear, to name, and to bless.” I should publish that. Why didn’t I leave it right there? There were three bears, three little pigs, three billy goats gruff. There are always three clergy playing golf (the priest, the rabbi and the minister). There were also, they said, three persons in one God, and that idea still works for many people though it is impossible to understand.

Why not leave it there? Because these three powers, once I set them down, don’t move. Each describes something I do, but all together they leave something out. By the time I get these things done – if I get them done – the client has moved on. I gesticulate at an empty chair. In many cases an empty bed. My trinity leaves out the journey, and that’s why I must spoil it.

I talked recently with a man who said that his life has sucked (his word), and his impending loss of it is therefore less grievous than it might be. He is a charming man. He is quiet, articulate, patient and trusting. I empathize with his deepest deadpan humor. His melancholy humor sings to me, but I do not think my life has sucked. Now what am I to do? If I tell him he’s wrong, I fail to hear his disappointment. If I try out new names for his grief, I do not thereby make him happy. If bless his passion for life, I mock him by sanctifying what he cannot bear. I may do these things, but these things don’t touch the heart. They don’t amount to empathy.

This man has spent an afternoon on the bridge, looking into the water. Now the water is rising to him.
There are powers we do not have. But we are tempted to think we have them. We learn over and over that we do not have them, and each time we learn we do not have them we clear the air. Then perhaps, in that clearer air, our real powers may be revealed.

I cannot save this man. I cannot make his life happy, or make him into a happy man, or rescue him from his unhappiness. If I could, I should not. To remove his grief would be to remove him from himself.

So I said, “I’d like to go part of the way with you.” He accepted my proposal. I’m going to travel with him. Perhaps he will be less alone than before. We do not prevent the tears, but sometimes we wipe one away. Even better – a sort of miracle – if he can do it for himself. Because he knows I’m watching.

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