From Chicken Soup for the Soul at Work

The Power of Being Human

Life is an opportunity to contribute love in your own way.

Bernie Siegel, M.D.

With my graduate degree from Princeton and numerous public speaking honors packed in my bag, I arrived at a small-town church somewhere in Oklahoma and began giving them sermons as sparkling as my résumé.

The congregation’s response was gracious and encouraging, but not all of them caught fire with the fervency I had in mind. Especially the deacons. Most of them were young, my age or slightly older. I decided they lacked the maturity to appreciate the seriousness of the eloquent challenge I laid before them.

There was one exception: Vilas Copple. Vilas was older— somewhere around 50, I’d guess. He looked like an oil field worker, which he was. I don’t know exactly what Vilas did, but I suspect it was something that called for both the education that comes with experience and the endurance of hard physical labor. I do know that he cared about his church. He sang in the choir, attended Sunday school, and supported my efforts to light a fire under the deacons.

That was what Vilas and I discussed for almost an hour after the deacons’ meeting one Monday evening. Then we parted to go home. As soon as I walked in the front door, the phone rang. It was Vilas. He’d arrived home and found his wife collapsed and dead on the kitchen floor. They’d eaten dinner together that evening, and she seemed to be in perfect health. But now this. Would I come over? Of course. It was my job.

I walked to Vilas’s house, not only because it was relatively close, but also because I was in no hurry to get there. Every step of the way, frantic questions raced about in my head. What was I going to say? What could I do? How could I help? This wasn’t like preparing a sermon. For the sermons, I had time and books to consult; other than my desire to be seen as a master of motivation, there was no desperate urgency attached to them. This was different. This was the real thing. A man’s wife, his loved and loving companion, the mother of his children, was dead. This was as real as it gets. Although it was my job, I had nothing to say.

So that’s what I did for most of the night. I said almost nothing. After the coroner had come and gone and the body was draped and taken away, Vilas and I sat there in his living room for hours, mostly in silence; both of us. There were a few barely audible prayers that were mostly whispered, fragmented sentences. He was not educated in the way of words, and I, confronted for the first time with a human being in critical need, had nothing to say.

Dawn was breaking when I returned home. One of the clearest memories of that entire night was looking at myself in the mirror as I brushed my teeth and saying, What in the hell are you doing in this business? I went to bed thinking about what other lines of work I could get into without going back for a lot more schooling. Nothing came to mind.

Some two years later I received a call to another church. I was excited to go, but it was also a time of sadness, parting with a congregation that had been so understanding and supportive of their young pastor. They had taught me a lot and graciously assured me I’d done the same for them. In looking back, I got the better deal.

Now it was the last Sunday, the last sermon. Even some of the choir, who usually went directly to the choir room to hang up their robes after the service, were in line to shake hands and share a hug with their departing pastor. I looked up and there was Vilas, big tears rolling down his rugged red face. Vilas took my hand in both of his, looked me straight in the eye, and said, “Bob, I could never have made it through that night without you.”

There was no need to explain what he meant by “that night,” but it was by no means immediately apparent why he couldn’t have made it through that night without me. That was the night I’d felt totally unworthy and incapable of doing anything important or helpful, the night I was so painfully aware that I lacked the words and the power to function effectively in the midst of catastrophe, to penetrate the trauma with at least a glimmering of hope. But for Vilas, that was the night he couldn’t have made it through without me. Why did we have such completely different memories?

The truth is that we simply are not always magnificently wise in the face of life’s tragedies. There is only one thing wrong with that old saying, “I’m only human”: It usually comes out sounding like an excuse, when it should be an affirmation, a glorious affirmation of our thanks and our worth.

Robert R. Ball

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