As I write, I am partway through a visit with some extended family members in the Midwest. Being the only medically trained person in my family means I have the interesting role of unofficially evaluating the mental status and medication regimens of my older relatives. While this has been a fascinating glimpse into my future as determined by genetics (I apparently will be hilariously sarcastic in my 80s), there have been recent concerns about my grandparents developing memory loss and rather sudden personality changes. While this is not exactly unexpected, it took me by surprise the other day to have my normally cheerful grandmother look at me somberly and say, “Stephanie, never get old.”
This comment stuck out to me for multiple reasons. First, my grandmother has demonstrated a Spirit-filled attitude of contentment and gratitude for as long as I’ve known her, and this comment felt strikingly out of place. It also sent my mind racing for any appropriate reply. I’ve had a fair amount of practice responding to this particular comment in the clinic where I work. Patients frequently advise me to never get old, but I have yet to develop a good comeback. Replying with the cop-outs “Well, it beats the alternative” or “How exactly do you propose I do that?” doesn’t exactly seem like the therapeutic communication I try to teach my nursing students.
I’m aware I over-analyze this casual comment patients might offer as small talk. I realize that my discomfort in not having a good response is related to a much larger issue—my inability to help someone. Despite receiving excellent training and experience as a nurse practitioner, there are some health problems I simply cannot fix. Some situations do not have clear causes identified, and several diagnoses don’t have any curative treatments right now. While I hope we are all aware of our own limits of knowledge and the paradox of education often gives us more questions than answers, this acknowledgement isn’t comforting when people we love exist in the middle of this confusion.
There is no special prayer or magic formula to automatically bring physical healing to someone in the moment (although there is certainly a lot of prayer happening during my appointments with patients, particularly when there is no clear guideline for what treatment to try next). Even if a remedy helps one patient, our bodies are created so intricately that another person receiving the same treatment may react in a completely different way. (This explains the long pharmaceutical ads that include disclaimers and potential side-effect profiles often worse than the actual problem being treated.) I am frequently reminded of Aslan’s words in C.S. Lewis’s Prince Caspian, “Things never happen the same way twice.” While I always hope the Lord will fix a situation, I have to acknowledge that healing might look very different from what I expect.
In clinic settings, this feeling of uselessness is not pleasant, but I hear it echoing throughout other areas of life and in various forms: parents feeling helpless as they watch their child make unwise decisions, college students trying to help a friend struggling through severe depression, and community responses to overwhelming tragedy. Our human nature wants to do something (to give advice, to prescribe a medication, to find a distraction…), but these well-intentioned actions might actually be harmful to the person in the midst of the situation.
So what does God want us to do in those times when we desperately want to help a person but there isn’t anything we can actually do, besides pray? It is possible the Lord wants us to stay within this frustrating place of tension for a little while, to recognize our own ineptitude there. When we stop trying to force God to do what we think is best from our limited viewpoints, the Holy Spirit can have more room to work in and through us. As the apostle Paul says, God’s power is made perfect in our weakness!
I am certainly not an expert in dealing with the feelings of powerlessness when life seems out of control. It is tempting to beg God to tell us why certain things are happening, particularly when our lives look very different from what we expected. However, God rarely answers the why questions immediately. Instead, he gives us grace to live one day at a time as we focus on him.
At this point in my writing I might propose some sort of conclusion, encouragement, or call to action. But I’m in the middle of learning that I must embrace the ambiguity of not always having the right answer. In the meantime, I will pray that we can be fully present for our friends and family who may be going through hard times, even if we don’t know exactly what to say. And if anyone has a good comeback for the command to “never get old,” I’d love to hear it!
Stephanie Fisher is a family nurse practitioner at the Willamette Heart and Family Wellness clinic in McMinnville and is a professor of nursing at George Fox (although she is often mistaken for being a student there). When she’s not working or over-thinking theological concepts, she spends her time playing handbells, harp, trumpet, euphonium, and too many other instruments to list.