Facing the impossible

I smiled as I watched this little boy and his mom. She and I were sick and awaiting prescriptions. He was being really quiet as well as trying to find ways to help her. Another bout of dizziness swept over me. I closed my eyes and leaned against a nearby pole. I heard the pharmacy assistant tell yet another ill person her health plan did not cover the medicine. The price without insurance was in the hundreds of dollars. She replied, “That is impossible.” 

More than 70 years ago Eleanor Roosevelt asked, “When will our consciences grow so tender that we will act to prevent human misery rather than avenge it?” Preventing misery requires one have the eyes to recognize then do something to address another’s suffering. That recognition of another person “just like me” struggling can be enough for someone to access his/her goodwill to guide actions for assistance. 

A dramatic instance of this was one of my students who struggled academically. One day she called a fellow classmate stupid. I thought of all the times I had stepped in so no one treated her that way. In addition, in my classroom, such behavior was off-limits, period. I reacted instead of analyzing. I told her that academics were people who worked together to understand new stuff. She was now my partner. She had personal detention with me until she finished all of the assignment. Unfazed, the student laughed and said I was in for a long haul. 

Even as I said them, I regretted my words. Full understanding of the work was probably beyond her current skills. Yet, swapping the consequence to school detention would not afford us the chance to discuss the real issue, which was patience with and a positive attitude towards herself. 

I asked God to help me. If He guided the student to some understanding of the material, I would recognize that and end her detention. The boundary would be set, the gentle reminder that actions have consequences given, and the student encouraged to grow academically. 

That first afternoon of detention we discussed negative labels as inhibiting someone when one looked at something new. God called us to be a people who encouraged one another. That is why we never used such labels. In the guise of reviewing the assignment, I gave her what I hoped was a good hint. A short while later, she called me over to hear “today’s answer.” Inwardly I groaned. Contrary to my intentions, I seemed to be enabling her belief that she would never succeed. 

As she gave her answer, I was speechless in amazement. In an hour of class she had made no headway, but in 20 minutes after school she had the correct answer. As I had not spoken, she calmly stated she’d try again tomorrow. I smiled and said she had the correct answer. I watched as her self-doubt was replaced by pride in her accomplishment. Not wishing to take any chance of sullying God’s gift to each of us, I quickly sent her on her way.

The student left my classroom, but poked her head back in the doorway. She said, “Dr. Flavin, remember all that stuff you said at the beginning? You were right. It does feel so much better to figure it out.” In her two-plus years remaining, she never again berated a fellow student. 

Healing was an important part of Jesus’ ministry. In the short time that I was on antibiotics, the daily Gospel readings covered Jesus healing Simon’s mother-in-law (Mk 1:29 31), a number of sick who touched His cloak (Mk 6:53,56), and a deaf man (Mk 7:31-37). Two aspects of Jesus’ example in healing deserve special mention. First is Jesus recognizing all people as individuals chosen by God to receive healing. Jesus heals the centurion’s servant (Mt 8:5-13) and the Canaanite woman’s daughter (Mt 15:21 28). Second, Jesus guides the disciples to understand that all that is asked of them is to make a start by giving from what they have. Jesus takes their loaves and feeds the multitudes (Mk 8:1-10 and Mt 15:32-39).

Healing can be physical, emotional or Spiritual. We each are like that little boy in wanting to help, but not sure we know how. We are like the disciples in the chance to recognize what we have to share. As I was reminded of with my student, God can work wonders with even our smallest start.

We may not be able to purchase medicine(s) for anyone, but we can pray for them. Long before “medicines” people did extra work so another person could rest and heal. As part of our Lenten observances, let each of us choose one way to serve to reduce someone else’s suffering. In that way, we make inroads where God can continue the work of addressing what the world deems impossible.

Anchor columnist Helen Flavin is a Catholic scientist, educator and writer and a member of St. Bernadette’s Parish in Fall River.

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