Imagine, hypothetically, that you lived quite differently from most people around you, perhaps, say, choosing a religion that involved lengthy blocks of time serving during the week even after Sunday services, a rigorous code of health, and a whopping 10%+ of your income. Imagine also that you had lived in a community of people who raised their eyebrows your whole life at your eccentric choices of lifestyle: giving up an entire week’s vacation to take someone else’s kids camping in the summer or tilling up a piece of your back yard to grow a garden while a perfectly good grocery store sits just around the corner. Imagine that you were comfortable making those choices and being alone in them.
Then imagine that you got very sick.
Who would see that your kids went to your strange church? Who would write out checks from your checkbook for 10%? Who would tend your foolhardy garden or make sure the waste-of-time camping trip occurred? When your life, firmly steered in former days by your robust self, ground to a halt, what direction would the people who stepped in choose to steer it?
I’m not a spectacularly good friend, but I’ve been asking myself these questions for over a month. I’ve wondered what would happen to my life if something happened to me, because something has happened to my friend and I’m watching over her life.
With no shortage of opinions, well-honed in my own life’s living, I (like most people I think) am pretty sure that I could direct someone else’s life quite efficiently. Until a month ago, when the Lord gave me precisely that opportunity. I have been scared to death since, and I can’t think of too many times that I’ve prayed with more intensity to hear.
My friend, you see, ascribes to a strange religion. Her doctor is a naturopath. She doesn’t take pharmaceuticals – even a Tylenol. Until a couple of months ago, she was the healthiest person any of us knew. I speak some of the language of her lifestyle, but my religion is a bit different – not so different as her neighbors, but enough to present a challenge. As her health declines, do I encourage her to make the choices I think she should make, the ones her more different neighbors think she should make, or the ones she would make? When she is vulnerable, what do I do?
Our faith values above every other thing the opportunity to choose for ourselves. As odd-duck Mormons, chunking away our time and money and vacation days on a religion that asks a lot, we hold that so close that it’s part of our shirt-fronts. But we don’t often offer it to others without caveat. “Do what you like, as long as it isn’t too weird, or doesn’t cause you pain, or is too different from the way I would do it. If you choose … unwisely … we will judge you, whispering behind your back, clucking at your foolishness, waiting for you to come to your senses and do things our way. The right way.”
What made it even more difficult for me is that I have a tool that could help. I know that when it’s God’s will, I have the gift of healing. I prayed many times to be able to use it for my friend’s benefit. The Lord demurred, every time. His counsel instead was to walk with her. Finally, one quiet, thoughtful day, he said that he loved her and he wanted her to be served the way she wanted to be served. And then I understood. I remembered Mormon’s descriptive words of Alma’s people: “imparting to one another both temporally and spiritually according to their needs and their wants.”
I always thought that meant giving people things that they wanted. It never occurred to me that it meant helping people in the way that they would want to be helped, doing things the way they would do them, understanding them well enough to honor their life’s path and to help them where they were going instead of where we’d like them to go.
Being an advocate means losing ourselves. That rings wild warning bells for many, but I’m talking about losing ourselves in loving someone the way God would, and that’s hard. It requires wringing our souls out in listening for quiet promptings to do things outside our understanding or our nature. It means quieting the assertive, sure voice in our heads that has everything figured out. It means silencing our fears and engaging our conversation with Someone who knows more. And it means, to a certain degree, focusing more on our advocacy for the person we serve than those who disagree with us, fighting the good fight, willing to take a few hits so that the person for whom we advocate doesn’t.
I have learned a great deal about my own arrogance this past few weeks. I’ve learned that it’s more important to choose freely and to give that choice to everyone around us than to prevent every preventable hardship. I’ve learned that there is reason that Jesus asked people what they would have from him rather than giving them what he thought they needed. I’ve learned that honoring someone means that we are their advocate instead of the advocate of our own opinions.
My friend lies in a completely foreign hospital now, of her own choosing. I choose in no way to judge her path, applying no self-righteous “she finally came to her senses” or “at least now she’ll get real help” in my private thoughts. It was an incredible journey for both of us, enlivened with a sense of how advocacy works and what Zion feels like. I don’t know if there is anyone in my life who would do that for me – be my advocate, impart to me temporally and spiritually according to my needs and wants – but I know in a small way what it feels like to do that for someone else, someone I didn’t birth, someone who had no claim on me besides her humanity.
In that small journey, I’ve come to understand my Advocate a bit more.