The West Wing, one of my favorite shows, never shied away from the big issues in life. War, death, capital punishment, alcoholism, disease…they took on pretty much everything. What has always struck me about the show is not merely that they chose to face these issues head on but that they did so with honesty and compassion. In the Christmas episode of the second season, they took on (among other things) mental health and struggling through difficult seasons in life.
Josh Lyman, the Deputy Chief of Staff, is struggling with PTSD after being shot at the end of the first season. While Josh is doing well overall at this point, his boss and his secretary both notice that he’s been struggling in the recent days. They arrange for Josh to see his therapist, and after Josh meets with his therapist, he has a conversation with Leo McGarry. This conversation will never stop being one of my favorite pieces of dialogue on the show, and a recent encounter with the quotation has led me to a meditation on grace and on friendship.
This guy’s walking down a street when he falls in a hole. The walls are so steep, he can’t get out. A doctor passes by, and the guy shouts up, “Hey you, can you help me out?” The doctor writes a prescription, throws it down in the hole and moves on. Then a priest comes along, and the guy shouts up “Father, I’m down in this hole, can you help me out?” The priest writes out a prayer, throws it down in the hole and moves on. Then a friend walks by. “Hey Joe, it’s me, can you help me out?” And the friend jumps in the hole. Our guy says, “Are you stupid? Now we’re both down here.” The friend says, “Yeah, but I’ve been down here before, and I know the way out.”
I’ve been going through some rough things lately. It hasn’t been easy, and I’m not always sure how I get to the end of the day. I know that there is prayer involved; sometimes that prayer is just “Jesus, help me.” There are days when the only way that I make it through the day is the knowledge that there is someone in my corner.
For me, Leo’s quotation is the definition of love and of friendship. Prayer is infinitely valuable. Medicine is good. But sometimes what you really need is for someone to meet you where you are and try to help you climb out of the pit. Sometimes what you really need is someone who has been in the pit before and knows how to get out. You need that person to climb down into the pit and help you get out.
Recently, I ran into someone who I hadn’t talked to in a while. She asked me how I was doing and added something like “It seems like you’ve been having a rough time lately.” I can’t tell you what it meant to not have to just say, “Oh, yeah, I’m fine.” I didn’t have to say that everything was going well for me. I was able to be honest and say that things aren’t perfect right now. I don’t know if that woman will ever know what it meant to me to be able to say that yes, my life is hard, really hard right now. It was a massive gift to me, and it was something that I desperately needed. Now, she didn’t help me climb all the way out of the pit, but she did come to the pit and acknowledge it for what it is. That seemingly small act helped me up a little. For me, it was a moment of grace.
Grace can come into our lives like this. It doesn’t always come in big ways or obvious miracles. Sometimes it’s just someone acknowledging our pain. It isn’t always a complete removal from the pit. Sometimes it’s just someone coming into the pit and spending some time with me or seeing that I need some sort of help and getting it for me without me asking. That’s the really amazing thing that Donna and Leo did for Josh; they saw his needs and met them without him verbally asking for help. (Punching the window was his way of crying for help.)
Honestly, that’s the thing that I need the most when I’m struggling. I need someone to do for me what Leo and Donna did for Josh; I need them to see my needs and help me before I ask. But it’s not easy to be Leo and Donna; oftentimes, people will hide hurt or difficulty from even their closest friends. I know that I’ve tried to do that before. I’ve also tried to be Leo and Donna; that’s not easy. You need grace. You need strength. You may need a miracle. And the only advice that I can give on the subject is to ask for grace to help you in whatever role you are playing.
What am I trying to say? You need grace if you’re the man in the pit. You need grace if you’re the friend. When you’re dealing with the pit, you need grace to get out, and you need to have a friend around who will acknowledge the pit and ask for the grace to help you out.