“I held my best friend in my arms as he died from a heroin overdose.”
Those were the words my new directee, Chris*, spoke as he introduced himself during our spiritual direction session. He’d just entered the rehab center where I volunteer. It was the first of our weekly meetings that would continue for four months during Chris’ in-house recovery.
My face paled as the 23-year-old man-boy with dusty blond hair shared his story. I bit my lip, forcing back tears. “God,” I thought, “I’m not sure what to do with this.”
Chris’ face was blank and solemn. His voice was monotone as if he were telling me what he’d had for breakfast.
“I’m so sorry. What was that like for you?” The question stumbled off my tongue as I hoped to create a safe place for Chris to share his story.
“Charley was like a brother. We lived together on the streets, finding shelter at night in abandoned warehouses. Heroin was cheap and available. So, we searched for pop cans during the day and used the money to buy heroin to shoot up at night. We had lots of good times laughing, drugging, and feeling carefree.
“The day Charley died, we’d bought a bag of heroin from a dealer we didn’t know. As we clenched our fists and shot the needle into our arms, we waited for the euphoria that typically follows. But this time was different. There was no euphoria. Instead, our bodies shook violently. Our muscles constricted with excruciating pain. As our eyes met, Charley and I knew we’d bought a bag laced with fentanyl. We were in for a ride.
“We sat on the warehouse floor hoping the convulsions would pass. Charley cried. I pulled him into my arms and held him close to my chest as we rocked back and forth.
“Eventually, the tainted heroin proved too strong for our bodies to tolerate and we passed out. I woke up at dawn and shook Charley. He didn’t move. He wasn’t breathing.
“Why did God take Charley and not me?” Chris’ dark eyes seared into my soul, his heart searching for answers.
So, began my journey as a spiritual mentor to a young man broken by trauma.
I met weekly with Chris and listened to his story. The tears he shared as he detailed his life on the streets healed some of his wounds.
Over the weeks, Chris found faith in a Higher Power. He practiced daily meditation. He also came to accept that maybe his were the arms of Christ holding Charley as he died.
One week when I showed up for my appointment with Chris, the director told me Chris had been kicked out of the program. “Didn’t someone tell you?”
“No,” My blood seethed with anger. “Why didn’t you call me? Where’d he go?”
“He’s back on the streets.”
I turned around in panic and darted out the door. I was convinced I had to find Chris and counsel him, bring him back to a safe place, to sanity. God, he’d made so much progress.
I spent the next two hours in desperate search throughout the run-down neighborhood. Eventually, I realized Chris was nowhere to be found. Maybe he didn’t want to be found.
In tears, I sank to the ground, raised my fist to the sky, and cried out an angry lament to God.
“I failed,” my ego shrieked. If only, what if, how come — were the only words I could offer the God I had tried unsuccessfully to serve.
Chris’ disappearance ripped a hole in my heart. As he came to mind over the next few weeks, I wondered how he was, where he’d landed, whether he was still alive.
I brought my experience with Chris to my peer group and spiritual director. Over time, they helped me understand that God was teaching me an important lesson — the difference between being graced with empathy and being trapped by it.
Empathy is a gift we receive from the Holy Spirit. It’s understanding what another person is feeling — seeing the world through his or her eyes. It consists of compassion, but goes beyond, since with empathy we often physically and emotionally experience the other’s pain.
Empathy becomes a trap when we fail to distinguish between others’ emotions and our own. It becomes unbalanced when we feel as if we have to solve their issues so we can feel right about ourselves. Trapped by empathy, we become desperate to fix the situation. We unknowingly take on the role of God.
As I struggled to learn balanced-empathy, a friend taught me to practice the 3 Cs:
- I didn’t cause it.
- I can’t control it.
- I can’t fix it.
I can, however, be the presence of Christ’s love. This is the grace of Holy Detachment that Saint Ignatius taught.
I still think of Chris occasionally. When I do, I find consolation in knowing I can hold him in my heart, but more importantly, that God holds him with a love much stronger and wider than I ever could. Just like Chris had to let go of Charley, I realized I had to let go of Chris, trusting I mentored him as best I could.
Spiritual directors carry out their quiet ministry in private rooms, typically containing three chairs — one for the director, one for the directee, and one for God. We have to remember the third chair — not ours — is the most important one in the room, because that chair is for the true director — God.
As long as we carry out our ministry with love and lean into the wisdom of the Holy Spirit, we never fail. We simply do the work God has called us to do. And when the journey overwhelms us with a directee’s pain we can’t fix, we rest in the Creator’s arms.
*Names and facts were changed to respect and protect identities.