In Idabel, I loved walking among the trees near my home. Tall
pines felt like older siblings watching over me as I walked on a carpet of needles
and cones. At the right time of year,
pecan trees left a snack on the ground for me to munch. Others offered full leaves to shade me in the
summer and dazzle me with their colors in the fall. In the winter, they showed their bare forms
like not so shy maidens disrobed for their men’s admiration. In the spring they
garbed themselves with colored blossoms.
I lived among trees when I was a child but was soon taken
to live in the plains, where I spent most of my life. Once I was back with them
I realized how much I missed them.
In the politics of my southern culture, “tree hugger” is
a disparaging term, but I think I really am one of those people. I know for
sure that trees have held and hugged me.
When I was little, I would play among them and climb into the crook of my
favorite to read a book.
photo by D. Mercer
What if all things, animate and otherwise, are connected
spiritually? Science tells us that there is a constant exchange of atoms and molecules
in which we all participate, sharing unseen particles with each other right now
as well as with those of the past and future. What if connection goes even
deeper than that and we are actually a part of each other? I may walk among
trees, but I am also a part of the trees and the trees are a part of me. Jesus once prayed for oneness: “I in thee, and
thee in me, and they in us.” Would that oneness include not only persons but
also the trees, soil, air, sea, and stars?
It’s such a great thought and I love entertaining it. But
if it’s true, why do we get so lonely? Is it possible to simply change our
state of awareness so we can enjoy oneness with everything?
In my journals which I've written all my adult life, one of the things I said repeatedly since the beginning is how lonely I was.
If I was once your minister, please don’t feel guilty.
You didn’t know and you didn’t cause this. I’m telling it now because I hurt people
when I left the ministry and I feel that I owe them some explanation. Also, perhaps it will help people understand
the systemic problems of church that cause pastors to be lonely. Believe me,
I’m not the only pastor who feels this way.
First, we have to move frequently. We don’t have
time to form bonds and if we do, we have to leave them behind when we go to the next assignment.
Second, small town pastors are always outsiders. We didn’t
grow up with you. We don’t share your history. We’re not your family. If you
are nice enough to invite us to your house during family gatherings at holidays,
we’re uncomfortable. Additionally, we often don't have the time or resources to visit our own families.
Third, it costs too much to be friends with the pastor. If you
had tried to get close to me you might have gotten hurt by church politics. Someday I’ll write at length about that but for now I’ll just say that most of the few friends I’ve made along the
way… they don’t go to church anymore.
I always said that loneliness is just part of the
job that a minister endures. But as I got older I became
unhappier and lonelier, and I just couldn't endure it anymore.
I had no one to talk to. Every week, sometimes twice a
week, I slipped away to talk to a counselor, which helped a lot but not enough
to make up for the isolation. I couldn’t
tell anyone of my personal problems. I couldn’t talk about my theological
struggles. I couldn’t talk about my problems at work.
I don’t have mystical or psychic abilities but I
possess qualities that would identify me as an empath.
At church, when I greeted people, I surveyed their faces.
Was there sadness or fatigue in the eyes? Were there worried frowns behind the
smiles? Or were they masking everything over? When I shook their hands, I noted
the strength in the grip, the temperature, and whether they had a wedding band.
If I hugged someone I gauged their vitality and shared some of mine with
them. I listened to the tone of voice
and I paid attention to the nuance of their words. I did a quick survey from
head to foot. I saw tattoos, jewelry, and state of dress. It's not that I cared how well they dressed--I was
looking for signs as to how they were.
I did this outside of church, too, at restaurants and the
grocery store. There were often many
encounters within a short amount of time.
Once, someone accompanied me to the Walmart and commented later, “Within
fifteen minutes you met with eight people, all of whom told you significant things
about themselves.” That was normal for me.
I absorb people’s feelings. I feel their sadness and
pain. I enjoy their happiness, too, but mostly I feel the angst. When I visited the hospitals, I often felt
their symptoms while I was with patients.
Sometimes, especially at funerals, I'd get overwhelmed when I stood in front of a crowd and felt their collective vulnerabilities and it would all slam into me as I gathered my thoughts.
I’ve done this all my life and it helped me be a good
minister. Nobody forced this on me. It’s
who I am and what I do. But there were
periods when it all bore down on me like a great weight, and it would feel like
any minute my knees would give out and I’d crumble to the floor. I don’t think people
noticed except maybe other empaths. I could hide it because I was cheerful and talkative, but inside I was wearing out.
During this last year, I’ve rested and
reevaluated, and I’m learning to develop the ability to protect myself so I can continue to function. Additionally, I’m finding things that replenish me.
I stopped just after I entered through the door. The
emergency room was bustling with nurses and patients. I turned around to leave but then I stopped
again. I was still standing in the
entrance when the attendant at the counter noticed me.
“May I help you?” she asked.
“I… don’t know if I really have an emergency,” I stammered.
“What’s the problem, sir?”
“My chest hurts… and…” And then I started crying and
It became a blur at that point. I remember a nurse came
and guided me to a room. She spoke softly as she took my blood pressure, pulse,
and temperature. Then she pasted a bunch of electrodes all over my chest and
back. She left the room saying the
doctor would see me as soon as he could.
She came back to check on me a couple of times.
It wasn’t my heart. It was an anxiety attack. I’d been having them often, only not as
severe. Before I left my job at the church I had one every Sunday morning
before people arrived for the service.
My chest and head would pound, I couldn’t breathe, and I’d get dizzy and
nauseated. I knew it was anxiety so I tamped
it down by focusing on the people in front of me. But that weekday the pain in my chest came
and wouldn’t go away. In fact it became
worse which is why I went to the ER.
It was embarrassing. I hated telling anyone that I was
panicking when there was no emergency. On
the other hand, I guess I was having an ongoing emergency and my heart was in pain as I faced major
changes in my home and career.
Late in the afternoon they took all the electrodes off me
and told me to go home and relax.
That next week, a young couple who didn’t attend my
church asked me to perform their wedding.
They came to my office and we discussed the particulars of the ceremony. When I asked what they did for
a living, the woman surprised me when she said she was a nurse at the ER.
“Did you see me when I was there last week?” I asked.
She nodded. I felt the embarrassment and I didn’t know
what to say. I was the pastor giving
advice and instruction yet she had seen me as a blubbering mess.
“Are you comfortable,” I said, “with my doing your
She smiled and said, “Sure, if you are.”
We continued the session.
A few weeks later I performed the wedding. As I had her repeat the
vows, my memory came back and I realized she was the nurse who actually took care of me.
After the service I hugged her and said, “I didn’t
remember you until just now.”
If I were still a minister I might tack on a verse or
spiritual observation at this point.But
really… I got nothing.I wrote this so
people would understand how bad I was feeling when I left. But I also wrote so
I wouldn’t forget that a person I was assigned to help had already helped
“Don’t take this the wrong way, man,” the middle school
student said, “but you talk Spanish like a Gringo.”
“That’s okay,” I said. “I talk English like a Texan… y’all.”
In Orlando, we have many cultures living next to each
other. People from Puerto Rico, Cuba,
Venezuela, Haiti, France, England, Vietnam, Korea, China…. And then there are all those strange-talking
foreigners from the north like New York, Chicago, and Idaho (hey, if you’re not
from Texas you’re a foreigner to us).
Kidding aside, it’s a splendid place to live where the
cultures weave themselves in a vibrant tapestry. But it’s complicated. I try to pay attention
but I don’t understand everything I see and hear.
The other day, I was substitute teaching in a rowdy
class. One kid started throwing a
partially filled water bottle into the air, trying to get it to land right side
up—a popular physics experiment repeated over and over in schools. I politely asked him to stop. He looked at
me, smiled, and gave it another toss. I
became less polite and yelled at him and he looked at me like I’d lost my
mind. I was sure he’d lost his.
There was no lesson plan for the class. I didn’t even
know the subject. In fact, it was several minutes before I figured out that none of them
spoke English. I then realized that the
boy hadn’t understood my directive and he didn’t know why I yelled at him.
When I had a moment, I went to him and asked, “Hablas Ingles?”
photo by David Mercer
He shook his head.
I pointed to the water bottle, put my hand on my chest,
and said, “Lo siento… I’m sorry.” And then he really
looked bewildered. But it was the best I
The class was a disaster complete with kinetic mayhem
along with screeching and a fight.
I didn’t get around to taking roll until the end of
class. It was a laborious task with names difficult to pronounce and the kids
weren’t answering me anyway. But the boy
to whom I apologized came and stood next to me. He helped me read the names and
together we got the job done. I thanked
him and he gave me a terrific smile.
It gives me pause.
A Texan who can’t speak Spanish and a Puerto Rican boy who spoke no
English found an opportunity within a misunderstanding to be gracious to each
other. It turned a bad day into a good memory.
“I don’t think any of us knew how tired you were,” my friend said after I moved away. I didn't realize at first how right he was.
When I arrived in Orlando, I
thought I’d find a job right away, but in fact I stayed inside with
the lights off and couldn’t move for days which turned into weeks. And I cried
The secrets wore me down. I didn’t dare discuss my
thoughts and doubts with anyone. I hid how unhappy I was. I called on every ounce
of strength to present myself the cheerful, energetic preacher. I didn’t always
I don’t think I’m exaggerating when I say I’ve been tired
most of my life.I was always able to
mentally move aside the fatigue and move on but it took its toll on my health
as I got older.
Now, Sylvia takes care of me. She fed me good food and
took me to hear good music. We went to the beach and I walked on the shore where
the cool water washed my feet and the waves established a new rhythm inside me.
I’m better. My health issues are fading. I’m able to rest. For the first time in years I
sleep through the night.
I reflect a lot on what led me to this moment even as
I begin living again. I still cry every day but it doesn’t last as