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Fearing the Fragility of Auntie Janis and Cousin Judy

January 10, 2019


Recently someone on Facebook asked how people felt about the music of Janis Joplin. I answered that my tolerance for her sound was limited to two classic songs, largely because I found her pathos to be more than I could endure. I added that Judy Garland’s singing had affected me similarly: “Too much pathos, too much ‘love me, look at my anxiety and the wreck they’ve made of me.’ Much too much. Emotional exhibitionism has always made me cringe.”

And then, only moments later, a friend who is dealing with cancer put her feelings before the members of a private chat group to which I belong. She was not emotional—she even apologized for bothering us with a question that, while tranquil at its surface, was fraught with longing, fear, and a sense of fragility.

It immediately brought to mind the words of L’Arche founder Jean Vanier, who in a recent interview said, “We shouldn’t pretend that everything is easy. Fragility needs to be loved.”

My friend’s tender and intimate question, followed hard by the reminder of Vanier’s words, ended up challenging me to revisit my thoughts on Joplin and Garland and transparent human neediness in general. Why was my friend’s quiet outreach so acceptable to me that I was glad to accompany her in the moment—even flattered to be so entrusted—while Joplin’s howls and Garland’s hard vibrato, both resonating an anguish that must have echoed within them for decades, have resolutely pushed me away?

Obviously, the fact that my friend is someone I have actually met and worked with colors my willingness, but that can’t be the whole answer, because there are others I know much better than my friend—blood relatives, even—whose open need for my ear, and my simple presence, just repels me.

I am ashamed to admit this because I understand what it is like to be the person who, if there was any way around it, would not have been invited to the party. You’d think the experience would inspire me to be faster in my compassion, more welcoming—more willing to be a witness to the life of someone who always seems invisible, expendable, and unwanted by the rest of the world.

You would be wrong. When Auntie Janis and Cousin Judy show up at family functions, I get through the greetings and then go find something to do that takes me away from them for as long as possible, loathing myself even as I run away.

Possibly I am not wholly unique here. Every family seems to have those relatives whose knock at the door brings forth a small collective groan from the rest of us, not because we hate them, but because we know that whoever sits next to these people will bear a particular burden of presence to them, one made all the heavier because the attention is demanded rather than asked of us, and in a manner at once imposing and innocent.

We mostly want our social companions to keep things detached and light, but Auntie and Cousin are carrying substantial burdens every day, and the need to release them upon another when the opportunity arises must feel as overwhelming for them as it is for the rest of us to receive.

From a distance, we do feel genuine and appropriate concern for their problems. Up close and personal, though, when our real presence is required of us, we keep the wineglass handy and soldier our way through until a chance for escape presents itself.

When our presence to one before us is reluctant, forced, or resented, we are doing Christianity badly.

Fragility does need to be loved, yet it is difficult to be around when it is so rudely naked and unregulated. We want to get away from fragile people for the same reason we avoid hospitals and sickrooms: because they remind us that our own strengths are partly illusory and delicate webs of education, opportunity, and discipline that we’ve woven and others have permitted us to keep, for the time being.

Our lives can turn on a dime and we know it; all of our successes can be rendered moot in an instant. We don’t want to be reminded that the warm blankets of health, stability, and certainty in which we wrap ourselves today can tomorrow be pulled from us, leaving all of our brittle frailties and hidden weaknesses exposed. Then the very vulnerability we feared to engage with in others will suddenly arise from us, like an unmasking spirit. It will scare many away, and in that awful moment we will understand whether we have been seen and valued for ourselves, for our inherent worth as creatures loved into being, or only for fleeting utility and expedience. And we will know what it feels like to carry a burden too naked for others to willingly witness.

No wonder the transparent neediness of another makes us try to sidle away. No wonder so many of us are more comfortable online than in real life, more comfortable spending time with “friends” we’ve chosen but never met and who we enthusiastically “like” when they show us what we permit them to, which (in truth) is usually only a reflection of ourselves—our own thoughts, opinions, values—validated.

In his Principles of Catholic Theology, Pope Benedict XVI, then Cardinal Ratzinger, writes that we Christians must say to every human being “It is good that you exist,” and that we must communicate the message “with that act of the entire being that we call love.” He is right, of course, but it is an action rendered more difficult than it should be, simply because so many of us are so afraid to deal with the fragility of others, whether we confront it in person, or on social media, or even in the form of sonic wails and warbles let loose by long-dead divas whose woundedness found appreciation in paying customers yet destroyed them, still, for want of a real presence putting forth the necessary message of acceptance.

I do not wish to be the one withholding that message to the Auntie Janis and the Cousin Judy in my life, even though their bald neediness scares the hell out of me.

“Perfect love casts out fear,” writes John (1 John 4:18), and so we must—I must—bring that fear to the source of perfect love, pour it out before the Real Presence of Christ, and learn from his example not to run away from those human trainwrecks who are, in the end, just me on another day.