I heard a story today about a chaplain who worked in a veteran’s hospital in the 1950’s. There was an African-American soldier in the hospital who had lost a leg in the Korean War. The physical therapists had worked with him trying to get him used to wear a prosthetic leg. Both the soldier and medical personnel tried everything they could think of but nothing worked and the soldier was ready to give up and live life with one leg and crutches for the rest of his life.
The chaplain was made aware of the situation and stopped by soldier’s bed one night to see if he could be of any help. “I can still feel my leg, my real leg!” the soldier cried. “It’s a phantom pain.” replied the chaplain, “It will go away in time.” “That leg!” retorted the soldier gesturing toward the prosthetic one, “will never be ‘my’ leg.” After visiting with the young man the chaplain prayed with him and asked if he could take the prosthetic one with him. The soldier responded with a shrug.
The next day the chaplain returned with the same leg except it was painted a shade of brown to more closely match the soldier’s own skin tone. “What did you do?” asked the perplexed soldier. The chaplain, hoping he hadn’t offended the young man said he took it home with him and thought painting it might make it seem more palatable. “That’s all you did?” asked the soldier admiring the leg. “That’s it.” smiled the chaplain. The chaplain helped the young man to the side of the bed, attached the leg, helped him take his first few steps and from that day forward the soldier made remarkable progress.
Empathy is the ability to understand and share the feelings of another. The chaplain helped the soldier not by insisting he use resources given to him by the hospital but by listening and understanding what the soldier was going through and then adapting his help to the soldier’s personal, unique need.
Too often we see people who need assistance and we automatically assume there are places and resources that are available. We surmise that if someone wants help enough they’ll figure out how to get it. The truth is everyone’s story is unique and unless we listen, understand and are willing to personally get involved many will go on suffering and being blamed for doing so.
Yesterday I wrote about hearing the sound of a kitten but not being able to find it (“Listen” (https://thewannabesaint.com/2017/09/08/listen/). Today, I saw it for the first time. However, it wasn’t the way I wanted to be introduced. I was weeding near outdoor shelves and the weed whacker was on full throttle. Grass and dirt flying everywhere and when I was right next to the outdoor shelf all of a sudden the gray kitten (I now know what color it is) shot out from under the shelf running for dear life. I immediately turned off and put down the weed eater and went looking for it. Using my best “meow” and “here kitty kitty” I tried locating it to introduce myself and assure it wasn’t in any danger but no luck. It was in too much distress to come out of whatever hiding place it discovered. After I finished with the weeding I put out a little food and some water in hopes it will show up again. We’ll just have to wait and see.
A friend, who is a teacher, posted on Facebook that it can be difficult to reach students because of the trauma and distress they face in other parts of their lives. He lamented the impact a teacher can have because of the other challenges and difficulties his students are facing on a daily basis. I find this true in my work with men as well. Whether they are incarcerated, in a rehabilitation clinic, non-residential, divorced or living with mom and the children, most of these men have a painful story. They are impacted by their past experiences of neglect, abuse, heartbreaking home lives, and lack of positive male and female role models. These not only affect their current behavior but also wire their brains and condition their bodies to react in mostly negative ways.
What I’ve learned is that I can’t fix these men. It’s not in my power. What I can do is show them respect and kindness. I try to connect with each one personally. If I can establish a relationship built on kindness and respect amazing things can happen. I’m unable to help them all but I try and trust this is enough.