My personal and professional life is predicated as a response to the world’s suffering. It just so happened that right before graduate school, I came across a book, How Can I Help? Stories and Reflection on Service, by Ram Dass. It changed my life. Below is an excerpt from a section called “Suffering.” I call it “Eating Tears.”
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I know God will not give me anything I can’t handle. I just wish that He didn’t trust me so much.
— Mother Teresa, b. Agnes G. Bejaxhiu (1910–1998)
My idea was pretty simple at the beginning. I started to volunteer in wards with terminally ill children or burn victims – just go there and cheer them up a little, spread around some giggles. Gradually, it developed that I was going to come in as a clown.
First, somebody gave me a red rubber nose, and I put that to work. Then I started doing some elementary makeup. Then I got a yellow, red, and green clown outfit. Finally, some nifty, tremendous wing-tip shoes, about two and half feet long, with green tips and heels, white in the middle. They came from a clown who was retiring and wanted his feet to keep on walking.
It’s a little tricky coming in. Some kids, when they see a clown, they think they are going to be eaten alive. And kids in hospitals and burn units, of course, are pretty shaky. So it’s always good to lead with some bubbles, just blow some bubbles around the ward. Then I’ll move from bed to bed, just feeling out what’s appropriate: maybe checkers, or blackjack, or go fish. Or if they’re lying there with tubes coming out of them, I’ll hit the kids with riddles. Riddles are great.
Later, if they can manage it, I’ll give them this paper bag that they can fit over their heads. When they put it on and sort of blow their lips together, they can make this funny sound I call the Funny Mantra. They turn into a living kazoo. I’ll say, “If things get too tough, just take that paper bag from under your pillow and sound off. Maybe that’ll help a little, and it’ll sure surprise the nurses.”
Because things do get very tough in there, I’ll tell you. They were very tough for me in the beginning – very. You see some terrible things in these wards. Seeing children dying or mutilated is nothing most of us ever get prepared for. Nobody teaches us to face suffering in this society. We never talk about it until we get hit in the face.
Like when I was starting out I was making the rounds one day at a children’s hospital. The shade was pulled on this one room so I couldn’t see, but I peeked in the door. It was a room with badly burned children in it. They had them in chrome crib beds with walls on the side, so they couldn’t crawl out or fall out if it got too terrible in there.
There was this one little black kid in one of them. He was horribly burned. He looked like burnt toast. Pieces of his face weren’t there. Pieces of his ears were missing. Where was his mouth? You could hardly tell who he was. There was no way of pinning a person to the face, what little there was of it.
It was just terrible, just mind-boggling. My jaw dropped, I gasped, and I came completely unglued. I remember flashing back to the anti-war movement. There was this picture of a napalmed kid I used to carry around at demonstrations. Suddenly here was that kid right in front of me. Unbelievably painful to behold.
I was overwhelmed. And my mind went off in all sorts of directions. “What’s it going to be like if he lives?” “What if I had a child this happened to?” “What if this happened to me?”
So there we were burnt toast and unglued clown. Quite a sight, I bet. And I’m fighting just to stay there, trying to find a way to get past my horror.
All of a sudden, this other kid comes whizzing by – I think he was skating along on his IV pole – and he stops, and kinda pushes around me, and looks into the crib at this other kid, and comes out with, “Hey, YOU UGLY!” Just like that. And the burnt kid made this gurgling laugh kind of noise and his face moved around, and all of a sudden I just went for his eyes, and we locked up right there, and everything else dissolved. It was like going through a tunnel right to his heart. And all the burnt flesh disappeared, and I saw him from another place. We settled right in.
“YOU UGLY!” Right. He ugly. He probably knows how ugly he is more than anyone else. And if he’s gotta deal with people hanging around with saliva coming out of their mouths, it’s gonna be extra horrible. But somebody meets him in the eye and says, “Hey, what’s happening? Wanna hear a riddle… ?”
So being able to look You Ugly in the eye… that’s done a lot for me. Because once I do that, I can go in and see what might be done that can ease things up. And you get all kinds of inspiration.
Like, some of us were setting up to show Godzilla in the kids’ leukemia ward. I was making up kids as clowns. One kid was totally bald from chemotherapy, and when I finished doing his face, another kid said, “Go on and do the rest of his head.” The kid loved the idea. And when I was done, his sister said, “Hey, we can show the movie on Billy’s head.” And he really loved that idea. So we set up Godzilla and ran it on Billy’s head, and Billy was pleased as punch, and we were all proud of Billy. It was quite a moment. Especially when the doctors arrived.
So I don’t know. Burnt skin or bald heads on little kids — what do you do? I guess you just face it — when the kids are really hurting so bad, and so afraid, and probably dying, and everybody’s heart id breaking. Face it, and see what happens after that, see what you do next.
I got the idea of traveling with popcorn. When a kid is crying I dab the tears with the popcorn and pop it into my mouth or into his or hers. We sit around together and eat the tears.
My name is Eddie and I’m in recovery from civilization…