Images similar to this have been flooding social network feeds for days now.
All of us have seen them, but why do we find the simple action of embracing this “disfigured” man so moving? Is it because the Pope touched him so tenderly? No. To be blunt, it is because most of us wouldn’t.
Most of us would probably do our best to look away from him, because looking at him would cause fear to run through our veins. Fear that this could be us, or someone we love.
Just as small children hide under the covers from the scary monsters of their imagination, most of the world’s population hides from the painful experiences of others. We acknowledge them briefly, then turn the page, or change the channel. We like to think we are a compassionate people, because we are moved by the actions of others.
But that is not compassion.
That feeling we feel when we look at the pictures of Pope Francis cradling this man in his hands, that is called humility. He has humbled you with his compassion and that is one of the most powerful ways a person can change the world.
That feeling is why video footage of children singing Katie Perry’s Roar, while battling life-threatening illness, has swept the internet. And why the story of the teenage orphan, Davion Only, who went to church to find a family, has captivated our nation.
But we need more exposure, more involvement besides simply playing witness to the acts of others. We need personal experiences to truly humble us, to take us beyond the soft impact of articles that briefly flash through our Facebook feed. This is why it pleases me so much to see a person in a position of power, like Pope Francis, using that power to teach us that there is a world for him outside of kissing babies and driving a modest car.
For me, it is a very bizarre feeling to like a Pope. I’m not Catholic, I don’t even practice a specific religion, but he has me rethinking my sworn disdain for the pageantry of it all. He has qualities not unlike many of the great spiritual leaders of our time, and I can say I look forward to what he might be able to do to bring people together. He’s turning out to be much more than the poster child of an institution, and it was this image that triggered this shift in perspective for me, due to my own personal experience.
The Man Behind the Curtain
Four years ago, I sat in my father’s hospital room. He was on a ventilator, with a tracheotomy, and unable to eat or go the bathroom on his own. This was during a period of great unrest for our family, because we all knew he was coming to the end of his life.
His struggle had gone on for almost 15 years, but the personal battles of each family member as they dealt with witnessing him fight took it’s toll on all of us.
Still, this emotional turmoil created multiple opportunities for growth for those around him, moments where we redefined the emotions we had clung to our whole lives. “Unconditional love” became more than just a phrase we said, as we bathed him and hooked him up to machines.
Sadness was overwhelming; sometimes due to the impending loss, but more often than not, it was due to watching him struggle. Fear had morphed into a monster that kept us all in hiding, as we locked up these feelings and carried on trying to be brave for him.
My role, in regards to my relationship with my dad, was very sweet and simple. Whether he was at home or in hospice, I always gave him a manicure, a pedicure, and a gentle massage of his arms and legs. I always believed that loving touches helped heal, but I never applied that concept consciously. I just knew that it eased him.
While watching his vitals on the monitor beside his bed, his heart rate would stabilize, along with his BP, and he would eventually slip into a light sleep. Towards the end, a 20 minute nap was the best comfort we could hope for him.
Just as I reached the height of my personal anguish over his health, something happened. Or should I say, someone happened.
I came in to visit my dad, and to my surprise, he had been assigned a roommate. The man behind the curtain, as I often referred to him, moaned at all hours of the day. This made me very uneasy, which in retrospect I realize was because I couldn’t ignore his suffering. I couldn’t ignore my father’s suffering either, with this man sounding the alarm with his cries, as if to say, “We are in a hospital!! Watch your TV, pretend all you want that everything will be okay, but it won’t!”
On the very first day, I asked the nurse that tended to him if he was able to speak, and she briefly described his state for me. He was unable to breath on his own, he could not communicate, and his body was rigid from years of hospitalization. He had suffered from multiple strokes, still had feeling in his body, but could not move. I had caught glimpses of him here and there, as the nurses came in to change his bedding and adjust his position.
I remember the first time I saw his legs, covered in tumors. Just as the man the Pope is seen with, my father’s roommate also suffered from what appeared to be neurofibromatosis.
At first, it was horrifying to see.
I am just as guilty as anyone else might be of not wanting to acknowledge such a thing could exist; the weeks passed and no one came to visit this man. I watched the nurses come in and out, with very little conversation, and minimal contact. My mother and I rotated visiting with dad, so that almost everyday he had someone by his side for at least part of it. But this man, day in and day out, continued to moan constantly from the other side of the curtain… all alone. It began to wear on me, but I was unaware of the effect it was having on my dad.
I remember one day, this man was moaning so loudly that we couldn’t hear the TV anymore. I got up and headed to the door to get a nurse, and my dad gestured at me to leave him be. The look on my dad’s face was one I have only seen a handful of times in my life, and in each instance he was experiencing extreme heartache.
To comfort him, I turned off the TV, and I sat down to give him his pedicure. As I trimmed his nails and cleaned the dirt out from in between his toes, the moaning continued. He had tears streaming down his cheeks. When I asked him what was wrong, he mouthed a harsh and gurgled whisper (due to the tracheotomy), “He is just like me. Except, I am not alone.”
He had tumors all over is legs and feet, his toes were curled under from atrophy, and is toenails were long and thick. In an effort to be respectful, I let him know what I was doing, and asked him to please moan very loudly to let me know if he did not want me to do this. To be honest with you, I was pretty scared. But, to my surprise, he remained silent the entire hour and a half that I worked on him.
I trimmed his nails, massaged his legs, and cleaned in between his toes. When I was all finished, I put a pair of clean socks on him, and walked up to the side of the bed to look into his eyes and speak a few words of kindness to him. It was then that I realized that the poor man was in a position where the only thing he could look at every day was the curtain that separated him from my father.
I smiled and returned to my father’s bedside and paged the nurse again. When he came in the room, I shared my discovery with him, and we came up with a plan to help this man. All I wanted was to change his view, give him something to look at other than a curtain. He said he would have to get the doctor’s permission first, but he would look into what they were allowed to do.
When I came in a few days later, the man’s bed had been moved to where he was able to look out the window into the courtyard.
The moaning had stopped.
Three weeks later, our mostly quiet neighbor had one final stroke and passed away. A week after that, my father came home for the last time. My father had humbled me, the man behind the curtain had humbled me, and the world had taken on a different hue because of this experience. It was the beginning of my healing.
I find myself in tears as I type these words. I knew when I chose to write about this, that it was never a story of miraculous fairy tale endings. It is about life, and life is difficult. But, as my father said to me many times,
“It is not about what happens to you, it is about how you choose to respond to it.”
The point to this whole story is that our compassion is limited by what we are comfortable experiencing. Many people cannot fathom the idea of volunteering at an animal shelter, hospital, or food bank, because the idea of suffering brings us so much pain. But that pain, that discomfort, is a good thing. It is one of the few natural physical reactions we have that validates our conscience.
Empathy is one of the many stepping stones towards universal compassion. Once we thrust ourselves into that vulnerability and experience the reward that compassionate acts create- we quiet the moans of our conscience. The discomfort becomes a welcomed response to personal, emotional, and spiritual growth.
It is a beautiful experience and I think it is the message we need to take from Pope Francis today. Not that he is so wonderful, compassionate, and kind – but that everyone can be, too, if we simply let go of the fear.
So, go. Discover compassion. Be humbled. Set yourself free.
A poem by Hafiz:
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Assistant Editor: Andrea Charpentier/Editor: Bryonie Wise