Helplessness feels terrible. Like flailing arms and legs, smacking against anything close by and bruising the skin without knowing how to stop. Watching coverage of the Waldo Canyon fires this summer was heart-breaking. I have many friends in Colorado Springs, and I worried for their homes, as well as their lives, as the flames jumped Queens Canyon and shot down the mountain. Witnessing devastation on such a large scale, when it’s impossible to help, hurts the heart.
Feeling helpless yourself is awful, too. I had an abscessed tooth in the fall and I felt more helpless than any time I can remember since being a kid.. There was no way to breathe through the pain as I had done in childbirth. No way to get away from it at all. It was in my head, throbbing and constant and exponentially worsening every twenty minutes. Waiting until morning when the dentist’s office opened was torture, and it shook my nerves to feel so fragile. But that’s still not the worst.
The worst kind of helpless is for someone you love. Someone right in front of you, close enough to touch but who feels miles away when you can’t do anything to help the pain. My four-year-old daughter Lily had mono last winter, and along with it, hives which recurred for two and a half months. Not every day, but most, and it was a sad thing to watch. I remember once lying with her in the middle of the night while she cried inconsolably from the itching. I had woken up to her cries and gone to see what was wrong. It was too dark to see the state of her skin, and I didn’t want to wake up my son who shares her room, so I got a flashlight to assess the damage. When I shone the light on her little leg I gasped at the sight. Big, red welts all over. As I moved the light across her body – to her other leg, her arms, her neck and face, her feet – every bit was covered in itchy blotches. She looked diseased. My heart broke for her and I wanted to cry, too.
I ran downstairs and looked up home remedies for hives online. There wasn’t much. A cool washcloth, Benadryl (which hadn’t helped before), some herbs I didn’t have. I tried the washcloth, but cold and wet on top of itchy was not what she wanted; she only cried harder. As she tossed and flailed her arms and legs around I recognized the same feeling within myself. Knowing that there was nothing I could do to help, no remedy available that I could administer, made my heart flail. My mind raced, grasping for some way to make it better. My little girl who during the day can make me crazy with the number of times I have to ask her to put on her shoes, who causes me to employ deep breathing just to get through her tantrums, who’s favorite word is “actually,” meaning she has changed her mind about what she wants for lunch once again – this little being had my heart. The sight of her pain rocked me. It wasn’t life-threatening and really only had immediate consequences – no long-term problems would occur from this bout of hives – but knowing I couldn’t do a thing to help my baby girl made me ache.
And it was good for me.
We need to feel helpless sometimes. It makes us humble. Makes us realize our smallness in the wide universe. Gets rid of our western self-centeredness. It frees us up from trying to control everything and gives us open hands, even pleading ones – for help. From clenched fist to open palm. This is a lesson I have to be reminded of repeatedly, as I’m a fist-clencher by nature. Which is why when Lily had hives and I couldn’t fix them it was good for my soul.
Even the mom, the one in charge, the one with band-aids, and wipes, and snacks in her purse at all times, couldn’t make this one better. It hurt, as many good-for-the-soul things do. Pain is unavoidable in this experience we call being human. It’s just part of the deal. It’s our job to give it breathing room to do its thing and move on.
That’s hard for me; I want to push pain away, to block it out, to hold on tight to my delusion of control. But when there’s nothing to be done, helplessness is healing. It didn’t make the hives go away (zinc pills and acupressure did that) but it made my clenched fists open up and I focused on holding my little girl, stroking her face, letting her pain breathe until it moved on. We were helpless together, just as it should be.