There’s a worn down house in my college town that functions as a family advocacy clinic. We provided supervision for individuals whose parenting abilities were under the scrutiny of the court. Many of them were no longer allowed to be alone with their children. That’s where I came in. So long as I was there, they were allowed to be with their children. I was the silent shadow behind them with my clip board, taking notes the entire time. The ever present eyes and ears of the courtroom and the clinicians involved.
At first it’s awkward, polite society looks down at their phone when someone is struggling in public, and you can’t do that working there. I was writing it all down with a time stamp. Occasionally I had to intervene. Sometimes I had to take a crying child away from a parent. I had to break up fights between adults. There were days I came home crying. I’ll never forget seeing a father, a big tough guy, with tears streaming down his face as his little girl left.
It’s easy to get numb. It’s a way to cope. How else do you witness that much heartache? I got into a routine. Come in, check the schedule, check their file…there were endless files. All their heartaches summed up on paper. That’s all people are to you when you’re numb like that – their files.
It’s tragic. You learn all these big ideas at school. Philosophies, different therapies, different methods, miracles, clinicians and saints doing work around the world. You come out on fire determined to change everything, and then you get in the trenches and that fire gets snuffed out.
The Call of the Other
My favorite philosophies came from Jean-Luc Marion. He teaches that each individual cries out to be loved. To hear this call is to hear the “call of the other”. Why do you hold the door open for someone? Why do you pet a dog? Why do you smile at a baby? You hear their call, however small, and you love them in a small way back. When we don’t respond to the call, or even go so far as to not hear it, we die inside. Or as the Anatomy of Peace would call it, a “self-betrayal.”
Why is this “self-betrayal” so awful? After a habit of ignoring the call of the other, it becomes easy to strip them of their humanity and reduce them to be an object or an obstacle. People are more easily categorized as different, unrelateable, and foreign to you when in reality our lives and needs are more similar than different. To live a life detached and numb is to perish inside.
The New Client
This was me when I rushed to work. The case on the schedule was new to me. I was about to read his file when I saw the young man walk in. He was tall and gaunt with sunken hallow eyes, a pock-marked face, and missing teeth. I could read his physical presence as easily as his file. Looking at him I saw his drug of choice. To read his file would be to pat myself on the back and confirm what I already knew.
He had three rambunctious boys, all close in age. They were lively and danced around him when they came in. This poor dad was living in a fog. Ten minutes into the visit and he looked winded. Internally I groaned, it was going to be a long visit.
His sons wanted to do everything. “Dad, let’s play table hockey.” “Dad, let’s watch a movie.” “Dad, let me ride your shoulders.” Dad. Dad. Dad. It was hard to watch their dad. He was in slow-motion, straining to keep up. How sad, I thought. But he tried. I could tell he was giving it everything he could.
Then the end of the visit came. I gave him the fifteen minute warning. That time is always tricky. If a case is going to go sideways, it’s in the last fifteen minutes. I braced myself, but the disaster I was waiting for never happened. This exhausted, weathered young father pulled his boys close and looked at them. They all bowed their heads and held each other and he started to pray.
He prayed to Heavenly Father and thanked Him for this time he had with his beautiful sons. How much he loved them! His words weren’t eloquent, but they were beautiful and sincere. Tears rolled down his scared face. He prayed that he could change for them. He bore testimony of Christ and of the Atonement. How God was always there for them, even if he, their father, wasn’t.
The love in that room was overwhelming. Moments before I had been so condescendingly removed and suddenly I was ripped back to reality, to my own humanity. I cried. Who was I? What did I know? How was I better than this man? Were my sins, my pride so much less than his? Who was I to stand around professing to know God, but then walk out in the world looking down at all His children? When did I stop seeing others? When did I stop hearing their cry to be loved?
Coming to Myself
After the visit I ran home and sobbed. How wrong I had lived. My way of being was so at odds with what life I had covenanted to live. How high and mighty I had thought I was, how good I thought I was. What a counterfeit, what a lie. I looked at myself, really dug deep and wondered, had my discipleship been sincere, or just for show? That point changed me. I wanted to see people, really see them! I didn’t want to go through the motions, just reading names and files, but see people and their lives.
The rest of my time at that clinic was different. Rather than numb and closed off, I became open and vulnerable. I’ve learned that this life, the people we see and meet, it’s all a gift and precious. The labels we put on people are superficial, they don’t reflect the beauty and the potential within. To really live a meaningful life is to see and hear each other. To hear the call of the other. Stop going through the motions of your life and start seeing all the people in it. Each is dynamic and capable of amazing things, even if they are struggling at the moment.
I challenge you, dear reader, to look deep in yourself. How do you see people? Do they get in the way? Do they bother you? Are they obstacles to you? Or do you see them? Do you see their lives? Their struggles? Their strengths? Their stories? Do you hear their call to be loved? To be needed? To be heard? I challenge you to learn to see others, to hear their call, and see what miracles happen when you act on that call. That is how to live, that is how to love.