Thoughts on Watching a Man Struggle to Walk in a Hospital Waiting Room

I work for an elderly gentleman and the other day I took him to a hospital for a routine checkup. I bought a coffee and sat down in the waiting room with my book - Watership Down, actually; I usually read it twice a year, to remind myself of what it means to tell a good story - and, although I am generally a very focused reader, I found myself distracted by persons coming and going, probably because it was in the mid-afternoon and there weren't very many people around, so the few that did walk through had an easy time of stealing my attention.

At some point I looked up and noticed a man approaching using a walker. It was, as a whole, a very incongruous picture: He was impeccably dressed in business attire, as if he'd just stepped out of a corporate meeting; there was a messenger bag across his shoulder; in one of his hands, that rested on but seemed unable to directly clench the walker, there was a plastic grocery bag with what looked like groceries inside; he could not have been more than thirty-five years old. His gait was extremely halting and slow, and as I watched it occurred to me that he moved as one who is silently enduring a great deal of pain on account of the movement. He approached the reception desk very slowly, and the receptionist spoke with him, evidently telling him he needed to provide a urine sample. The nearest bathroom I'd seen was more than twenty-five yards in the opposite direction down the hall from which he'd come, and I also heard him say, after being asked to write his name on the little plastic container, "I can barely write," which only reinforced my impression that he was in great pain.

Some provision was made for this - I think she printed out a sticker label and came out to put it on the container herself - and he was then directed to walk just around the corner to my right, where there was a bathroom inside one of the examination rooms. He was relieved by this, but he still had to walk about thirty feet towards me and around the corner, and I watched this as best I could without being intrusive or impolite. His feet did not plant themselves exactly straight as he shuffled forwards, and his hands were clenched peculiarly. I do not know why he didn't use a wheelchair; maybe it was even more painful to sit down, or maybe he was desperately hanging on to whatever limited physical activity he was still capable of performing. But at one point, while he was standing still and before he had passed me, he met my gaze, and returned my quick smile.

At that moment my heart broke. For some reason, the only thing that kept running through my mind was: Your faith has healed you; go in peace. I was filled with an overwhelming longing to stand up and embrace him, to put my arms around him and look him in the eyes and say: "In the name of Jesus Christ, be healed, be well, let go of the walker, have no more reason to grimace and clench your fingers and use such an unnatural and painful gait."

But I could do nothing. I can't heal people. I don't have the gift of healing and I don't even understand how that works. All of this ran through my head as I continued to watch him struggle his way towards the bathroom. I wanted to say, I'm sorry, I wish I could heal you, I wish I could do something to take away your pain and make your family glad along with you, I don't understand why you're suffering and there is nothing I can do about it. And all of this is made no easier - quite the opposite, actually - by the fact that at the core of my life and belief stands a man who was raised from the dead, who himself spent quite a bit of time during his public time of service physically healing people. I believe that all that is true, and I believe that I now daily learn how to live my life from him, and that I have received some kind of gift of salvation, and that such a gift is available to any who will come. I believe all of this and yet I had to sit impotent as I watched a young man struggle past me on a walker, a device that shouldn't have had to even cross his mind for at least another forty years.

It was at once infuriating and depressingly tragic. I have a rage inside of me that boils up, sometimes unexpectedly, whenever I encounter suffering, or whenever I spend a few moments specifically contemplating some event of suffering. In such moments I imagine myself physically beating on God's chest, tears falling, screaming obscenities and raging, and repeating, over and over, something like this: Why do you let it go on? Why do you let this happen? Why don't you bring it all to an end? Do you remember how you closed your own canon - with a prayer for Lord Jesus to come quickly? What the hell are you waiting for?

What I have come to believe is that such times - while bordering on the impertinent and irreverent, and sometimes, I'm sure, crossing some sort of line - are actually a reaffirmation of my continuing confidence and trust in God. The reason such things reach me so deeply is precisely because I think there's every good reason to take seriously the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus - just as the writers of the New Testament, living in the first decades after those events, took them seriously, writing and leading communities and proclaiming and dying for these things with an urgency that I know I often struggle to feel. But these times of intense mourning and raging at suffering and evil remind me just how visceral and real and urgent all this is.

Most of us - I include myself, and anyone likely to read this, who lives comfortably enough to access the internet at their leisure in a place with things like electricity and a computer - tend to be insulated from suffering. I am paradoxically grateful that sometimes I am unable to think straight because of how vehemently I don't understand it and how difficult it sometimes is to put it out of my mind.

Suffering does not lead me to question the existence or justice of God, because I have come to believe that such things were established in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. But there is nothing that says I must be ok with it, or that I will somehow end up understanding it all, or that I will ever cease feeling as angry and impotent and sorrowful over it as I often do. When wrestling with such things gets to me that way, it reminds me of two things: If I have any hope of ever understanding any of this, I must keep returning to and learning from Jesus through the Spirit; and, ultimately, I must continue to live in such a way that I testify to the as-yet-unseen (except in the resurrection!) hope that someday all things will be made right and justice will pour out on the world like a beautiful flood.

Someday a world without walkers will be real. For now, I cry and rage and do my best to live in awareness of the great blessings and privileges I've been given that many, many others are daily denied.

Loneliness, Spiritual Formation, and Jesus

Gospel tracts and homeless men

Gospel tracts and homeless men