About 14 years ago, when I was new to the church where I’m now a well-established member and new to living with my boyfriend, I walked into church on the first Sunday of Lent with the dry mouth and raw eyes and heavy heart of a person whose Saturday night had involved too many tears and not enough sleep. I don’t remember now what Daniel and I had argued about. I just remember that I handled the conflict horribly, snarling words I knew would hurt him worse than he had just hurt me, because I wanted to win. I didn’t win. He got the last word and slammed into another room, leaving me to sleep alone, and as soon as he left I knew how wrong I’d been. I stayed up late criticizing myself worse than he had, and then I got up and went to church, thinking Daniel might never forgive me but hoping maybe God would.
Being new to that church and somewhat shy, I tended to sit near the back, and on that day I felt so timid that I chose the next-to-last pew. As I knelt there, I looked up at the stained-glass window and read an inscription in curly Gothic letters:
FOR VAIN IS THE DEEP OF MAN.
It was the second half of a sentence that began on another pane of the window, but I didn’t care what the first half said. I was stricken by this message that spoke so sharply and grimly to what I was feeling: Deep down, I am really a very vain person, thinking too much about myself and my goals and how I appear, failing to feel compassion even for the people I love most. Yeah, I do some good things sometimes, but when the going gets tough and anger digs in deep, there’s a part of me that is rotten and vile.
I saw far more of that part of myself than I wanted to in the next six months or so. Some difficult things happened, some old issues boiled to the surface, I had a hard time coping, and I had a horrible tendency to blame everything on Daniel (because, you know, if only he were perfect, everything else would be easier). There were good times, but overall it was one of my worst years.
I got better, though, and many of the ideas that had seemed so powerful and important at that time passed from my awareness. I like to think I’ve learned a little about resisting the temptation to say the most hurtful thing possible.
Two years ago, I helped to clean our church in preparation for Easter. I scrubbed candle soot off of the stained-glass panel to the left of St. Cuthbert, and as it came clean I was gradually able to read the inscription:
GIVE US hELP FROM TROUBLE
It’s strange how the lettering is in all caps except for the h. It’s a hard-to-read lettering style, with a dot in the empty corner formed by L so that it looks a lot like E, and that h‘s curvy part so tall and curled under that it’s hard to tell what letter it’s supposed to be. . . . I moved on to the panel to the right of St. Cuthbert:
FOR VAIN IS THE hELP OF MAN.
The help of man, not the deep of man! That pithy lesson I’d taken from the window years earlier, that message that spoke so clearly to my life at that moment, was only a distortion brought about by self-loathing and curly font!
Well, you know, that doesn’t mean that the message that seemed to be meant for me was not the message God was sending me. Maybe it was God who aligned my mind with my physical surroundings such that I “saw” what I needed to see, so that I would be humbled and apologize and work on doing better next time.
GIVE US hELP FROM TROUBLE, FOR VAIN IS THE hELP OF MAN.
What does that mean? A plea to God, I think: “Help us, because the help human beings can give us isn’t enough.” (“Vain” in this context probably means “useless” rather than “self-centered.”) Well, hey, I don’t think that’s always true–sometimes people can work through a problem amongst ourselves without going whining to God. The help of man isn’t always vain.
But in that sentence is a truth I might need to consider more often: Sometimes, when I think I need the help of another person–especially, when I think I am helpless until one particular person does the particular thing I want him to do to help me–it might be that I am looking for help in the wrong place.
Looking back at that early stage in my life with Daniel, I still see his flaws as flaws, but I also see that my own failings were making me angrier than his and that I was blaming him simply because he was there. I worked out many of my problems, and his help was valuable in figuring out where those problems really were rooted, but it helped only when I was willing to work harder than he was. When I threw myself at him wailing that everything was wrong and he had to do this and this and this to make it better for me, well, it just wasn’t that simple.
Yet I still hear myself making that kind of demand of him and sometimes of other people. When I can see how someone’s actions are affecting my feelings and preventing things from going the way I want them to, it’s tempting (it seems so logical) to insist that he has to change and I am helpless until he does. Sometimes I’ve asked for God’s help in much the same way: By telling God what to do and acting helpless while I wait. Sometimes I have gotten the help I demanded from another person, only to find that my problem (though smaller and easier) was still there. The help of man may be vain (useless) when the deep of my desire is vain (thinking I know what’s best), and it is only by opening up to a broader perspective that I’ll truly find help.
All the best resolutions of crisis in my life have come about by my not getting what I thought I wanted but discovering a different path that turns out to be better for me, accepting the help that comes instead of demanding the help I think I need. But that’s hard to accept. Even when I am begging for help, often I’m trying to control the whole thing!