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  • Writer's pictureStuart Sheldon

Are You Needed?

Dusk Falls on Dan's Delicious, acrylic on canvas, 30" x 48", 2002, Stuart Sheldon

Dusk Falls on Dan’s Delicious, acrylic on canvas, 30″ x 48″, 2002, Stuart Sheldon

Helplessness happens. 

We are born completely powerless and spend the rest of our lives clawing our way to a place of self-sufficiency. Aiming to go from zero to hero. We appear to have control most of the time. But, every now and again, the wheels fall clean off. 

I recall one morning, when I was a stay-at-home dad with our then 3-month-old first son. He’d received two vaccinations that morning, and a few hours later he was beyond distraught, shrieking uncontrollably from a pain I could not discern. His face was bright pink. His hair sweaty and matted. For several hours, I held him close. I swaddled him. Walked with him. Kissed him. I tried to feed him. I dabbed a cool washcloth to his face. Nothing helped. The code-red pitch and intensity of his wails continued.

His helplessness killed me. And, my helplessness to help him brought on a sense of self-loathing failure.

Ultimately, I simply snuggled him to me and whispered my commitment, as he suffered. It was all I could do. We suffered together. Finally, he calmed down. And then, a funny thing happened. As he finally fell asleep in my arms, I remember feeling so deeply in love with him. Not because he was this pure, little being. I felt this surge of emotion because, through this crisis, our little boy allowed me to experience something I so rarely felt in my life – to be truly needed.

Trying to be helpful, one week into fatherhood

Trying to be helpful, one week into fatherhood

The silver lining to the helplessness of others is the rare opportunity for us to be of fundamental value to someone we care about. Maybe we cannot fix their immediate problem, but we can hold them. And be 100% present. So they do not have to be alone with their pain.

But, what about when we are the helpless one? When we face myriad uncontrollable events: traffic jams, canceled flights, drunk drivers, sexual predators. Some of these events are merely annoying, others unspeakable. But all require us to take a step back and replace our former expectations with a whole new crop, created exclusively by someone or something other than ourselves.

I once read that, “Nothing turns out as we expect. It never does. Life is under no obligation to give us what we expect. We take what we get and are thankful it is no worse than it is.” 

I spent seven years in the Rockies where, on occasional crisp summer nights, I’d sleep in my backyard beneath an orgy of stars. Nestled into the pillowy grass, awash in cool lilac air, I’d fall asleep feeling rugged and alive, a flat-land, Miami, suburb kid on an open-ended adventure. One night, snug in my burrow, a stirring near the top of my head brought me back to the edge of consciousness. When I opened my eyes and craned my head, I did not understand what I saw.

A mere ten inches from my face stood a dark, bushy abstraction cloaked in shadow, with some kind of crazy target in the center. In my extremely exhausted state, my mind could not fully process this data. Yet, in the hazy seconds that followed, I managed to clarify what I was looking at – the business end of a skunk. I realized that the outcome here was 100% in my visitor’s hands … or whatever that hideous little circle was that I was staring directly into.

I’m far a from a control freak, but I strive to have choices in my life at all times. Lying there with my face to the fire, so to speak, I had exactly zero options. Like an unarmed hostage, my only hope was for mercy.

There was no time for the question why me, as I braced for a face/mouth/nose/eyes full of whatever that horrible juice is they squirt. The next few microseconds ticked by in surreal slo-mo.


Then, for no apparent reason, my captor’s tail of doom descended, and he scampered off into the Continental Divide. I sat up slowly, and beneath that gleaming sky, thanked 100 billion lucky stars for sparing me such rank indignity. I had resigned myself to the worst-case scenario. And it didn’t happen. But it often does. Bad things happen to good people everyday. They just do, and there is little the victim can do about it. We have all been that victim in one way or another. Rebounding from that event is a test of our backbone. Some tests we pass and others we fail.

Life is under no obligation to give us what we expect. 

When we are the helpless victim, the best we can hope for is to muster our survival resources while we try to maintain our dignity. When someone else is the helpless one, we have an opportunity to be something we rarely get to be – needed. That opportunity is a gift.

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