lenten journal: disease


Towards the end of the day at work it fell my lot to help a woman whose phone was not working as it should. The repair was fairly straight forward and under warranty. That was not the story. Somewhere along the way, she had decided things were not going to go well. By the time she left, she had dealt with four of us, and no one—including her—had had a good experience. Her anger and attitude was so toxic it almost had an odor. When I realized what was happening didn’t feel situational—that this is how life felt for her—I became incredibly sad because of one detail I had learned early in our conversation: she was a middle school teacher. I’m almost sixty years old, I thought to myself, so I can take this, but there are some seventh graders that are getting killed out there.

I don’t know her story, other than the brief chapter I got to read. I assume she is a deeply wounded person. The point of talking about her is not to disparage her. But ending my workday with her took me back to something I read as I began the day with Wendell Berry, still talking about language.

I . . . am speaking simply from my own observation that when my awareness of how I feel overpowers my awareness of where I am and who is there with me, I am sick, diseased. This can be appropriately extended to say that if what I think obscures my sense of whereabout and company, I am diseased. (42)

As I read those words this morning, they took me to a different place, as did the rest of his essay, which i’m sure will its way to these pages in the days to come. As I sat down to write tonight, and reread some of his quotes I had set aside, I heard him in a different light, and I noticed that at some point this morning I had written in the margins, depression is dis-ease.

Disease. Dis-ease. Yes, another “dis-“ word to add to the growing list we are accumulating. Separated, disconnected from ease, from wholeness. I have learned over the years that the lie of depression—which can still hook me—is that I am alone. I could see it in her as she sat at the table tonight, even as she knocked the wind out of me. She believed the lie as well; she was dis-eased. The more toxic the encounter became, the more I realized, wherever her feelings were coming from, I was the one in the crosshairs, so I leaned into my coworkers and took myself out of the encounter before it became a power struggle, or before I responded out of my own hurt. As I was walking down the stairs, an old Randy Newman song came to mind titled, “I Just Want You To Hurt Like I Do.” When he sings it, he says (in his satirical way) that he wrote it as a kind of “We Are The World” sing-a-long. The opening verse says,

I ran out on my children
and I ran out on my wife
gonna run out on you too baby
I done it all my life
everybody cried the night I left
well almost everybody did
my little boy just hung his head
and I put my arm put my arm around his little shoulder
and this is what I said:

“Sonny, I just want you to hurt like I do
I just want you to hurt like I do
I just want you to hurt like I do
honest I do, honest I do, honest I do.”

If I had one wish
one dream I knew would come true
I’d want to speak to all the people of the world
I’d get up there, I’d get up there on that platform
first I’d sing a song or two you know I would
then I’ll tell you what I’d do
I’d talk to the people and I’d say
“It’s a rough rough world, it’s a tough tough world—well, you know
and things don’t always, things don’t always go the way we plan
but there’s one thing, one thing we all have in common
and it’s something everyone can understand
all over the world sing along

I just want you to hurt like I do
I just want you to hurt like I do
I just want you to hurt like I do
honest I do, honest I do, honest I do.”

The song is hard because we know what it feels like to lash out, to hurt someone out of our own hurt, as if that creates some kind of bond, some kind of community. I remember being with Ginger one day in the line at a department store. We watched as the cashier lived out Newman’s song on most all of the people in front of us. She was hurting; she wanted us to share. Our encounter proved to be no different, except that Ginger had the wherewithal—or, I should say, the compassion—to say, “I hope your day gets better.” The woman caught herself, and then held up the line while she told Ginger her story. Her whole demeanor changed.

As I walked to my car, I thought again of Kumalo’s words from Cry, the Beloved Country that I quoted last night:

Pain and suffering, they are a secret. Kindness and love, they are a secret. But I have learned that kindness and love can pay for pain and suffering.

When the woman told me I had done a terrible job and she wanted to talk to someone else, I allowed her words to hurt my feelings. About all the kindness and love I could offer was to not strike back and to get someone else. I did not offer much in the way of healing. I will pray she comes to some balance where her feelings do not overpower her sense of where she is and who is with her, particularly in her classroom, so that she has more to say than, “I just want you to hurt like I do.”

We do share our pain in common, but it need not be contagious. We can be wounded healers. We can put each other at ease.



  1. This 78 year-old retired middle school teacher will not go to sleep tonight without a prayer for all those students who are in the classes of these who inflict their dis-ease on others. One of my favorite things a big eighth grade boy ever wrote in my yearbook is “You were always nice to me,” but it makes me cry to think that he even had to take notice of that. Why shouldn’t everyone be nice to him? And I pray never to inflict my pain on others as she did to you…..

  2. I keep coming back to this post. I feel your sadness for the hurt you were dealt in that encounter – I’ve been there. And I am painfully mindful of the innocent people who have stumbled into my crosshairs when I’ve struggled. Thank you for the reminder to stay aware of the impact we have on others – especially when we are hurting or frightened. Sending love.

  3. Sometimes you can’t open the jar. The next person comes along and pops the top right off. But people ain’t pickle jars. I’ve dealt with angry, selfish, mean-spirited folks who only want to talk to someone who’s not me – and get even angrier when I can’t magically make their favorite person appear on demand or instantly return their call. Be loving; be kind; try to heal their hurts or solve their issue at hand, but be ready to walk away, heal yourself, and try again another day.

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