I never feel quite so helpless as I do when I'm sitting with someone's broken heart that I cannot fix. It's happened more times than I care to recall, and it's why I decided against a career as a counselor. And yet, as often as I try to avoid the situation, it keeps finding me, and once again I feel completely helpless, and all I can do is sit and cry and feel my own heart break too.
Yesterday it was one of my adult ESL students, who came in looking tired, but when I asked how she was, she smiled and said "OK." Then I asked if she had finished her homework, and she said "No." At this point I tend to want to roll my eyes and I think, "For heaven's sake, you had a whole week to practice ten new words, why didn't you?" But as I started to go there, she started to blink hard and managed to say, "My father... very sick... in Burma... I cannot..." and then crumpled onto the table in sobs. I also learned that her father is 85 and she hasn't seen him in two years and probably never will see him again. And on top of that her teenaged disabled daughter, whom she takes care of full-time and who hasn't had a seizure in a year, had a very bad one the night before and had to go to the hospital. And I know her husband has died and she is raising four kids on her own, so her lonliness and weariness is just crushing her, and why should she care about learning English right now and who am I to demand anything from her?
It took me so off guard that I couldn't really do anything for a minute except mentally slap myself for my insensitive assumptions.
My next thought was to grab some tissues, which were in my bedroom, but as I started to move she weakly said, "No, No, I'm fine," and pulled her own wad of tissues out of her purse. Clearly, she wasn't fine, but clearly she didn't want me to leave her side, even for a minute.
My next thought was tea... oh, how we could both use a cup of tea right then! But we were alone and I can't put the kettle on by myself and there was no way I could ask her to make her own tea. And once more I hated my disability for limiting what my heart longs to do.
My next thought was prayer. Why wasn't that my first thought? So I laid a hand on her arm and prayed for her and her father and her daughter.
Then I wondered what I could do next. She doesn't know much English, and I struggled to put into simple terms any measure of comfort. I begged God - not for the first time in my life - for the gift of speaking in a tongue that she could understand. But it didn't come.
I looked pitifully at the ESL workbook and lesson I had laid out for her, wondering how we could possibly focus on the difference between "this, that, these and those" under such circumstances. I chose to be a teacher, not a counselor! my mind screamed in frustration. Then a still, small voice said to my heart, "No, you chose to be a missionary." And what an unpredictable mixed bag that has turned out to be.
My student took a few minutes to calm down, and then threw herself into the English lesson in a way that made me realize it was a kind of escape for her from her hard life. We ended early, and she said she wanted to go home and sleep. I hope she did, and I hope she found rest and peace in Jesus too.