I was in college, volunteering for Junior Achievement, which is a fantastic organization that sends volunteers into classrooms to teach basic economics.  I’d been doing it since I was eighteen, thoroughly enjoyed it, and was stepping out of my comfort zone a bit to teach an 8th grade class a program about the importance of staying in school.  I was a bit nervous about teaching this class.  For one thing,  I usually taught K-3rd, and I was a bit skeptical about how warm a reception I’d receive from tough kids.  For another thing, these weren’t your average 12 year olds.  No, they were in a special Behavioral class which meant that they had been labeled as needing extra attention for one reason or another.  I was afraid that meant I’d be greeted by a bunch of tough mini adults with attitudes.  But I wasn’t.  Instead, I was welcomed and my heart melted as these kids listened and participated.    My signature gift for every class I have ever taught has always been a personalized book and handwritten letter to each child.  At the end of the program, I presented these 8th graders with these gifts. Some of them didn’t read well and I have atrocious handwriting anyway so a few asked me to read the letters to them.   One young man said proudly that he was going to frame my letter in his room,  a comment which, ten years later, I still vividly recall with a giddy grin.

Walking into the last session of a JA class with the kids' gifts!

But the realization that pre-high schoolers are not all attitude and CAN be reached wasn’t the biggest surprise I got out of that class.  What struck me more was one of the girls in the class.  On my first visit, the teacher pulled me aside and asked that I not call on this girl to answer any question because she was “too shy.”    When I but spoke to her, her face turned red.  Once, I put my hand on her shoulder and her entire body went as rigid as stone—and I make no exaggeration– her body wired up as though I struck her.  She never raised her head.  When I presented her with her personalized book and deeply struggled over handwritten letter, she cried but made no noise.   It did not take a genius to figure out that this girl had been severely damaged, and hurt.  I voiced my concerns with the teacher, trying to make sure she had been given therapy and taken out of whatever kind of nightmare she had unquestionably been in.  I had never seen anyone respond to another person like that girl to me.  She never said a single word to me.  And  I know why. Her life’s goal was to be invisible.  I know, because that was my goal for a long time, too.  But even though she never said a word to me,  she has not been forgotten.  In fact, I’d say I remember, pray for and think of  her quite regularly.  Even ten years later.

A couple years after this,  I got the brilliant idea I needed to be a phone counselor for the Rape and Sexual Abuse Center.  I have no earthly idea what gave me this notion.  I don’t even remember how I thought to look for such an organization.  But I vividly recall the training.  It was  downtown, and it took place once a week for a couple of weeks.  No psychology class, no matter how in depth, not even watching a movie like “Sybil”, had remotely prepared me for this training.  I remember sitting there, listening to things, watching video clips and hearing these other well-to-do volunteers who were much older than me talk about how sad it all was,  feeling as though I were going to pass out any second.  One week, they brought a police officer in who detailed the specifics of a rape kit and I remember thinking,  “I cannot tell someone who has just been through hell to volunteer to let a hospital do it again,” which instantly made me want to cry for hours.  They talked about how some callers would call in with suicidal thoughts and/or attempts;  some callers would talk about self-harm.  My worst nightmares were being thrown in my face, with very little time in between.  Training let out late and I remember one night sitting in my car, crying afterwards.  A police officer tapped on my window and asked me if I was alright. I told him I was, and that I was just leaving the training.  He advised me to go ahead and drive away because sitting in a car in that neighborhood was not safe, he said.  I was quite proud of myself for making it through that training.  But it left me shell shocked and traumatized.  It was as if someone had poured acid on a raw nerve.

My daughter had to have surgery on her skull when she was 8 months old.  When she came out of surgery she was swollen and her eyes were black and blue.  She looked like she was gravely ill. And my heart broke into about a thousand pieces.  It took awhile before I was allowed to hold her because she had to be hooked up to so many machines.  Every day that I wasn’t allowed to hold her pierced my heart.  My arms literally ached.  While she was in the ICU, there was a baby in the room next to her who never had visitors.  The nurses whispered.  I cried for that baby, too.

Breathe at Vanderbilt

The Holocaust has always touched me way down deep in my heart.  Early in the war, before the Final Solution, before Hitler and his henchmen started panicking and were instead just having fun, a group of Nazis were rounding up Jews.  They were chasing this mother, who held her infant daughter.  There were Nazis in and out of the building the mother was in.  Eventually, of course, they caught her and the Nazi threw the infant out of the window.   A Nazi outside caught the baby on a bayonet while the mother watched from the window.  A group of men managed to escape one of the camps.  One of the escapees ran to a farmhouse and banged on the door, pleading to be let in.  When it looked like he was going to be refused help,  he held out his hands and said, “Look, look at my hands,  I’m Jesus, help me.”   He, of course, was not Jesus and shouldn’t have used that as a way of obtaining help — but that’s not what I thought when I first heard his story.  What I did was cry.

Rascal Flatts sings a song called “Why” that talks about teen suicide.  I have heard it dozens of times and still cannot hear it without wanting to cry.  Because there really are sweet teenagers who think their lives are unimportant, who truly believe that going away would make things better or easier for others;  who truly believe no one really loves them, not enough to listen.  I think about a sixteen or seventeen year old boy who thinks he has to be tough, who thinks that crying makes him a girl, and he’s sitting on the edge of a bed with a gun in his hand, testing its weight.  He thinks about what the reaction of his family members will be.  His heart starts to race and his palms grow sweaty as he lifts the gun to his head.  He wonders if it’ll be instant, he wonders if it will hurt more than he’s been hurting.  He squeezes his eyes shut, doubts he can pull the trigger.  But he’s just a lowlife, who’s never amounted to much, who will never amount to anything.  He lives in the ghetto, so he’s destined to die anyway.  At least this way, he controls when and how.   There is no tomorrow.  He feels trapped.  All the unknowns about death and the afterlife do not scare him as much as the idea of waking up one more day.  If he doesn’t do it, he has to face the nightmares and then he has to wake up again.  He pulls the trigger.

These real live events in other peoples’  lives have truly hurt me.  Indeed,  I’ve been left reeling at times from being overwhelmed by the sorrow and the pain and the knowledge that I cannot stop it.  I used to compare my life with others whose stories were “worse.”   I told myself that I was fine, that I was okay, that my own story was nothing to complain about because it wasn’t the Holocaust or I wasn’t as shell-shocked as the little girl in my JA class.  I didn’t do drugs and while I might have had really bad thoughts at times, I knew I didn’t really want to die.  So, therefore, I was fine.  Other people, however, were not, and I wasn’t angry because of that, I was broken-hearted.  I was so, so immensely sad.  In fact, there have been many a time when I’ve been caught in a good moment but have deliberately prevented myself from enjoying that moment because I felt so darn guilty for smiling when there were babies swollen in the ICU,  or babies who were there and NOT being sung to, or visited;  when there were young girls who were so traumatized by the evil in their lives that they had to guard their bodies from even a casual touch on the shoulder, who felt it necessary to block all touch;  when there were adults who had actually lived through the horrors of concentration camps like Auschwitz;  when, right as I opened my mouth to laugh, some young woman on some college campus was being viciously attacked and yanked away from all normalcy.

Shoes from Holocaust victims

Last week, I read a quote from the founder of Samartian’s Purse and World Vision.  Paraphrased, it  was a prayer that asked God to allow Pierce’s heart to be as broken as God’s was for the hurting.  This pierced me. Pain is not funny.  Pain is not heroic.  Pain is not noble.  Pain hurts.  When it’s severe, pain hurts so deeply that tears just don’t touch it—it is deeper than tears.  What’s more, the things that are the most deeply painful will continue to exist.  Child abuse, and rape, is one of Satan’s strongest weapons, as it destroys many lives—so it will not likely go away.  Currently, 1 in 3 little girls and 1 in 5 little boys are abused.  That means that in a classroom of 10, at least 3 are, have been or will be abused.  It’s everywhere.  To assume you don’t know a child who’s in need is naive and dangerous.  The Holocaust is happening, right now, in other countries about which very few seem to actually care.  I’m not suggesting we act as the world police, I could care less about politics at the moment–my point is simply that the stories of torture and inhumanity and dehumanization aren’t stories of the past but of the present as well.  They just aren’t always in our faces.  St. Jude’s Research Hospital alone is full of innocent children who know they could die any time;  children who have to wear masks just to go outside.  When I was pregnant with Alight,  we seriously were told that she had more than one symptom of Down’s Syndrome.  Lots of children have been.  Children are going to get sick.  My PRIMS class sponsors a little girl from Africa through Compassion.  Last month’s magazine told the story of a pastor in Africa who, one day, heard a cry outside the church.  When he went to investigate, he discovered a box in which lie a baby boy.  The baby had just been born, his cord had not been cared for, he was bloodied and not wrapped in any blanket.  Ants crawled all over him, an image which shattered a piece of my heart. This pastor took the baby to the police station.  When the police asked for a name, the pastor took some water and anointed the infant, then told the police to call him Daniel Church, since the church would take care of him.  They took the baby to a hospital and every week the pastor would drive 90 miles to and from the hospital to see Daniel.  Soon, though, Daniel died and the pastor who loved him had to bury that baby who no one but the Church had wanted.  Children are going to be abandoned and left to die.

This is a fallen world, so evil is going to exist.  Caring isn’t going to stop it.

Most people hear the occasional sad story, feel badly, and move on, choosing to stay positive.  We hear a lot of talk about remaining optimistic.  And even when we struggle, it really isn’t that hard to do.  I mean, all you have to do is look at the faces of the ones you love or submerge yourself in a funny TV show and you’re probably going to feel better.  But Dr. Pierce, the one whose quote I mentioned, didn’t want to forget.  Not only did he not want to forget, not only did he want to feel empathy and compassion for the hurting, but he prayed that his heart be broken “like God’s” is for the hurting.

If these things hurt me, how much more do they hurt God the Father of all fathers?  And if you can begin to realize that it’s probably a heck of a lot more than it hurts a human being,  how could you ask that you feel that level of pain too?  Why would you do that?  Think, for a minute, allow yourself to absorb a little bit of the pain that’s all around us–now, why would you want that pain to be personalized?  God is a personable God,  He loves each of us.  That means He loved Daniel Church, the baby who had ants crawling on him moments after being born—not only did He love him, but He felt those ants and the helplessness that infant felt as he lay there cold and unable to get the insects off of him.  It wasn’t just an abstract story to God—it was real and it was intense, because  He loved Daniel, and Daniel’s life, no matter how short, had been no mistake, no accident and an innocent baby’s potential was cut short by a desperate mother’s decision to abandon him in that condition.  God was there when that bayonet entered the flesh of that infant.  He was also there when its mother screamed out in pain she undoubtedly had not been able to fathom until she watched her baby’s blood splatter the laughing Nazis.

When I think about these things, I don’t get sad.  I get desperately ill.  I think about the lives.  I think about the times the girl in my class cried, huddled in a fetal position, with no one but God there. I think about how she must have been aching for a hug while also being simultaneously terrified of one.  I think of a little girl who used to close her eyes and pretend imaginary characters were talking to her to help her forget.  For awhile,  all I want to do is cry.  And cry. And cry.

But then.

Then what I want to do is write something that makes someone, even just one person, care as much as I do.  It makes me want to speak so that someone might realize someone else knows exactly what they feel.  The stories of the Holocaust prompted me to create an entire program that I taught in schools, to help make sure children learned about it and that it wasn’t forgotten. It makes me want to teach and volunteer in a dozen different organizations so that I can personally show some children who are hurting that someone truly cares.  It makes me want to do something–even if all that is is making very sure I do my utmost to ensure the children in my realm of influence know I love them.  Caring enough to give a dollar here and there every once in awhile to a particularly sad story is okay.  But allowing the pain to become personal and deep, thinking about it and all its intricate levels, when you allow yourself to be as brokenhearted over an issue as He is, it  leaves you with no choice but to confront headon a question only you and God can answer:

What can I do about it?