Sometimes I am lulled into a false sense of simplicity. I don’t see the knot of life through the few, single, untangled strands that surround my quiet happy day.

Friday morning, I rode a bus while listening to a podcast about the potential for human hibernation. I pulled a wool hat down around my ears and ignored two consecutive “Do Not Walk” signals. I bought a warm drink and an egg sandwich and read about traumatic stress. That was all. That was everything. Hours later, I was walking out of class, laughing too loudly at a surprisingly witty joke about snakes on a plane. I remarked to a friend that I feel simultaneously more and less annoying when I’m not in the middle of a depressive episode. Friday was a good day.

But my life is only one little string. Long as it is, it only bunches up a little here and there and runs for the most part unhindered and undisturbed. But it is not the only string.

Friday morning, a teenaged boy was skiing. He’s known how to ski for as long as he’s known how to walk, but today would be different. In the same way that I bought a drink and a sandwich, he approached a jump, but the string of his day knotted in a way mine did not until much later. Where he would usually land a jump easily on his feet and gracefully continue down the mountain, today he landed on his face and spent the rest of the day only semi-conscious.

Strings everywhere are knotting unexpectedly every moment. A little girl will be playing with her dolls one second, and the next she is running for her life from a bomb that went off just down the street. A man is playing football with his friends and family at Thanksgiving, and then clutches his arm and falls to the ground, sending both teams into a panic. A young girl is driving to her first day of work and suddenly being nineteen doesn’t protect her from a brain aneurism and she’s dead before her car hits the tree.

So often our days can be happy, can be good, can be maybe a bit rushed or full of work, but not unpleasant. It’s perhaps unusual to go a full week or two without a knot in the string, but it happens, and it’s wonderful. It’s a feeling everyone should have at some point in their lives.

Sometimes the hitches in our routine are our own. A missed appointment, a fight with a friend, a reaction to something on the news—times when the job of detangling falls to us, and though we feel burned, betrayed, or sad, we feel powerful. We can take the time we need, make the decisions that are ours, and salvage the situation as best we can.

But when one string crosses another and knots at the junction, we cannot feel powerful. We hear about the girl running from the bombs and we wring our hands and send checks in envelopes, but we do not feel strong. We are across the street when the man collapses on the football field and we call 911 and perform CPR, but we do not feel strong. We get a call from a church friend asking to pray for the family of the brain-dead nineteen-year-old, and we do, and we feel closer to God, but we do not feel strong.

We get a call on the way to work about the smashed face and semi-conscious state of the teenaged skier, lying in a hospital bed hundreds of miles away, and we pray, and we call people, and we pace, and we pray more, and we do not feel strong.

It’s an easy thought process to remember that we are not the center of these experiences. It serves no one to turn others’ suffering into our story. If we see another’s struggle and ask ourselves, “Yes, but how does this affect me?” we’ve missed the point.

But the practice becomes more difficult when we viscerally care about that story that is not ours. We are creatures of action, and if we cannot use that action to craft a new, better end to the narrative, to unknot the string, we quickly feel helpless. The ceaseless prayer of a vigil is a discipline that descends from our Christian understanding that God is sovereign and our human compulsion to believe in our own sovereignty.   In keeping that discipline, we attempt to funnel our service to ourselves into a service for others, and when we believe in the power of prayer, we may succeed. But even the most powerful prayer cannot stem from our own strength. It necessarily and helplessly relies on the actions of Another.

This story ends with a knotted string. And we do not feel strong.

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