The Personalist Project

Last month, we had what my sister Simcha aptly described as an extended crisis in the extended family. (Don't worry, any relatives who may be reading this, I won't be getting specific!) For a sampling of related emergencies, you can read my sister Rosie's account of her recovery from electric shock therapy here and my own account of our mother's Alzheimer's here.)

A bunch of us stopped what we were doing and drove, or bussed, or flew in to the epicenter of the catastrophe, sat down together, and mapped out a plan. We congratulated ourselves on our teamwork, felt genuinely happy that we were all so genuinely happy to see one another, and flew or drove or bussed back to carry on with our own separate lives and ongoing everyday crises. 

But after we all went home, it all fell through. Helpers failed to show up, promising signs evaporated, and apparent improvements vanished into thin air. On top of that, new emergencies kept popping up. People close at hand (everybody but me) continued to stand by and "be there" for each other, in the most concrete and self-giving of ways.

Well, just like the politicians, I never like to let a crisis go to waste. This one reminded me of something important that I ran into a few years ago when I was helping translate a book of Pope Francis' homilies and addresses, right after he got elected. I noticed he kept using the word acompañar. The English cognate, as any grade-schooler can guess, is "accompany"--but I sensed how little that captured it. It meant being there for someone, standing by him, not only at the moment of crisis, but before, during and after: continually, affectionately, unstintingly, perseveringly. He talked about accompanying women with crisis pregnancies, and he clearly didn't mean just labor and delivery.

When I was growing up, we had a family friend, "Beverly," who was always needing help. Her family lived in a snooty, prosperity-gospel-ridden area, and neighbors did bring them casseroles for a while, but after a certain amount of this, one of the snooty ladies took her aside and asked her searchingly, "Beverly, when does the need END?"

The snooty lady had grown weary in well-doing (Gal. 6:9).

(To be clear, this is an actual person we're talking about, and that these weren't self-inflicted crises borne of recklessness or laziness. "Beverly" would have liked nothing better than to be no longer needy, and the assistance in question was not of the "enabling" variety.)

Maybe this weariness is an American thing. We're can-do; we're inventive; we like to think that for every problem there's a solution. And yes, this expectation leads us to discover solutions that might escape more fatalistic peoples. But the mystery of suffering and the enigma of insoluble problems are lost on us sometimes. 

We can all agree about the kind of accompaniment that just meekly stands by, I'm-OK-you're-OK'ing as someone trudges into a pit of quicksand. Some people think "accompaniment" means that what matters is not whether somebody ends up in Heaven or Hell, but whether his ineffectual buddies were by his side all the way there. 

But we could all stand to ask ourselves
if the accompanying we do is limited to random acts of emergency assistance or moves on to the kind of sustained, thick-and-thin self-giving--the kind my relatives kept on providing after I'd hopped back on my plane and flown back home. 

Comments (1)

Katie van Schaijik

#1, Dec 21, 2016 11:51am

I love this post, even though it gives me pangs of conscience. I fear I very easily weary of doing good.

The point reminds me of what I learned early on about marriage from reading von Hildebrand. The romantic lover loves to display his ardor in grand, heroic acts and gestures, but it's the patient, continual day-by-day sacrifices of married life across years and decades, ups and downs, that fully embodies and reveals the absolute self-donation of conjugal love. 

Grand acts and gestures in the early flush of passion are small in comparison.

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