Late one evening, years ago now, the phone rang – the old kind of phone – one that sat on a bedside table with push buttons and a dial tone. Ringing near midnight, I knew it could not signal the best of news. Sure enough, a panicked man from my congregation was on the other end of the line.
He told me that his son – a young man not much older than twenty – had left home in a fury and was now in an isolated wooded ravine, armed with a gun, threatening to take his own life. I threw on some clothes and headed out; to do exactly what, I couldn’t say.
Arriving on scene, the countryside was awash with red and blue lights, squawking sirens, and radio chatter. The woods swarmed with law enforcement, and there the local sheriff and father of the young man, with whom I had spoken on the phone, asked me to do something: Go talk to this young man before he harmed himself or someone else.
I’ve had some specialized training over the years – crisis intervention, de-escalation, and the like – but anyone who claims to be “prepared” for such moments is either a liar or a fool. One can only tread lightly, say his or her prayers, and present oneself as vulnerable and disarming (no irony, only sincerity intended) as possible.
So, down into the ravine I went, terrified, my heart so high in my chest it was beating just below my tonsils. I sat down with the young man in the dark, on wet moss, under falling leaves. We just sat there mostly, and didn’t talk long. Eventually, he handed over his pistol and was able to walk out, where he went to a waiting ambulance not to a police car or morgue.
Years later I bumped into this young man. He had married and had become a parent. He was sober, had an incredible job, and was thriving. After a long embrace and the normal chitchat he said, “That night in the woods…I didn’t want to hurt myself. But I might have. Thank you.”
His gratitude was sincere, but I’ll tell you what I told him: No “thank you” was necessary, because I didn’t do anything! I had no magic words, no action plan, no heroic speech. All I did was sit down – so petrified I could barely contain myself – and wait with him in the dark. That was all. Sometimes, though, at the risk of oversimplifying things, that’s enough.
No, do NOT intervene beyond your abilities or provide counsel exceeding your competencies. EVER. But you can always sit with one who is suffering. Always. There in the dark, in the cold, under the falling leaves. Just being there – with the hospice patient, the lonely, the aged, the single parent, the orphaned child, the incarcerated – might give enough time and space for a little light to shine. Because you don’t always have to “do something” to help others. Being there is enough.