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Comfortably Numb

by the Rev. Paul McLain

 

Last Wednesday morning, we were running late. It had taken longer than we expected to pick up my mother’s birthday cake at LaBaguette Bakery, so we tried to find the quickest route possible to Jackson, Mississippi, where we were to meet my mother and family for lunch to celebrate her 84th birthday. Along Union Avenue, I instinctively told Ruthie to move over to the left lane, because the right lane was blocked by all the cars waiting in line for the food bank at Idlewild Presbyterian Church. This was Ruthie’s first time to see this long parade of cars that snaked around a huge block in front of the church and stretched the length of its side streets. She teared up and began sobbing. She talked about how seeing this long line of cars put our stress over our errands to pick up the birthday cake and get to the party on time in perspective. These people were hungry. And they were willing to wait however long it was needed to get food for their families.

 

It was not my first time to see this long parade of cars. I have a standing appointment in midtown every Wednesday morning and have seen this sight almost every week since the pandemic began this spring. At first, I was appalled that this could be happening in the United States of America. I thought, this is what it must have been like to see bread lines during the Great Depression. Seeing that parade of cars and seeing the diverse faces of people from all over our city and region that were willing to wait in line for hours for a box of food brought the economic impact of the pandemic home to me in a very real way. But after seeing the parade of cars every week, it somehow blended into the “new normal.” It is one of the things that has become a part of my weekly routine, just like my daily routine of checking off a mental checklist before walking out the door of our apartment is now “keys, wallet, cell phone, face mask.” In the words of a song by Pink Floyd, I have become “comfortably numb.”

 

Ruthie’s tears awakened me from this state and jarred me into seeing the long parade of cars through fresh eyes. How could this still be happening in our city and country? And I began to reflect on all those faces of drivers and passengers, realizing that in each car there was a story of hardship and desperation that drove each one of them to get up early on a Wednesday morning to wait in line for a box of food that would make all the difference in their world this week.

 

I thought too of how I’ve become numb to the little boxes on the top left corner of our TV screen on cable news with the numbers of COVID-19 cases and deaths. I remembered when reaching a new milestone jarred me. Now, as the numbers cross over 6,000,000 cases and 180,000 deaths in the U.S., it was hard for me to feel anything. It seemed like yesterday we crossed over to 5,000,000 cases and 100,000 deaths. But what brings these numbers home to me, is watching the last segment on the PBS NewsHour on Friday evenings and seeing the photos and hearing the stories of five persons who died from the coronavirus. To their families and friends, the pandemic is not a series of faceless numbers. It’s all too real to them. And it becomes real to me. I wish I had known their loved ones. And for a few moments, I do know them and I hurt.

 

I sometimes say that as a preacher, my favorite verse of the Bible is “Sleeper, Awake!” But, if you look at that entire verse of Ephesians 5:14, it reads: “For everything that becomes visible is light. Therefore it says, ‘Sleeper, awake! Rise from the dead, and Christ will shine on you.’” I’m grateful to Ruthie for waking me up that morning and helping me see.


37 thoughts on “Comfortably Numb”

      1. Joan, you’re exactly right on how recognition of being “numb” is a first step toward gratitude and service. And I share your fond thanks and blessings for those who are receiving and providing food. Love, Paul

  1. Thanks for reminding us to open our eyes when all we really want to do is pull the cover over them during this pandemic.

    1. Mary, you’re welcome. Glad the post was ‘eye-opening’ for you! How is your recovery from your fall going? Hope and pray you are healing and getting stronger each day. Blessings, Paul

    1. You’re welcome, Katie. Hope you and your family are safe and well. I loved seeing Phoebe’s start of school photos on Facebook! And I miss your ‘mothering presence’ for all of us on the 4th floor! Blessings, Paul

  2. There’s a line in the film, “American Beauty,” where the character Ricky says, “Sometimes, there’s so much beauty in the world – I feel like I can’t take it, like my heart is just going to cave in.”
    I find that to be a true statement, but I also find its inverse to be true: Sometimes, there’s so much ugliness in the world – I feel like I can’t take it, like my heart is just going to cave in.

    1. Beau, I loved the “paper bag floating in air” scene in the movie. I wonder if our numbness is a way to block out all the ugliness to avoid the pain. But then we miss out on the possibility of seeing beauty, or being a part of lifting up ugliness into beauty. Blessings, Paul

  3. Thanks for this wake up call. It is so easy to be numb, to escape. There is so much to try to escape, but that isn’t what we are called to do. I thought I had a bad day today- sick dog, huge vet bill. I treated myself to a milkshake and that helped, but wondered how many kids in Memphis have never had a milkshake and couldn’t go to the doctor. It sort of brought things into perspective, but now to act. That’s the challenge.

    1. You’re welcome, Christy. Glad it spoke to you. And you’re right, now to act is the challenge. Hope your dog is feeling better and you’re having a better day today! Love and Blessings, Paul

  4. How lucky we are to have you and Ruthie here at Calvary to help keep our eyes and mind open always to those less fortunate. I also appreciate the PBS last segment on Friday evenings as it connects people and their stories with just numbers.

    1. Heather, so glad the post spoke to you. And glad you’re a fellow lover of the PBS NewsHour final Friday segment on the stories of real people and their families that we just want to hug! Blessings, Paul

    1. You’re welcome, Greta. I’m grateful for your intuitive spirit and your thoughtful care of friends like Karen. Love, Paul and Ruthie

  5. Paul, you and Ruthie are quite a pair! Aren’t you lucky to have each other? We at Calvary are very lucky to have you both, with your openness, your sincerity, your willingness to share your hearts. I’ve been self-absorbed lately, and reading about your “awakening” is helping me to try to look outward again. Love, Elizabeth

    1. Elizabeth, yes-we’re very lucky to have each other! Glad the blog post is helping you look outward again. Much love and many blessings to you and Jimmie! Paul + Ruthie

  6. I live in midtown, see the lines wrap around buildings protected by police cars at every turn. Waiting in long lines for food, financial assistance, laptops and headsets for our children. Eviction lines at rental offices and MLGW. I am close to those in health care and truck drivers, their hours long and worrysome. I pray every day for these dear people. My blessings are many and for that I am thankful, daily. I pray we always see their faces and remain generous and kind. We all have a small something to offer.

  7. Thanks, Patti. Glad you’re noticing, praying, and giving the small something we each have to offer. Love and Blessings, Paul

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