We all have those songs that just irritate us from the moment we hear the first note on the radio, and make our skin crawl until we change the station. “Brother” by NeedtoBreathe is one of those songs, but not for the usual reasons. The lyrics are meaningful, the tune isn’t annoyingly catchy, and I actually really like the singer’s voice.
Here’s a link to the song, and the lyrics:
Ramblers in the wilderness
we can’t find what we need
Get a little restless from the searching
Get a little worn down in between
Like a bull chasing the matador is the man left to his own schemes
Everybody needs someone beside em’ shining like a lighthouse from the sea
Brother let me be your shelter
I’ll never leave you all alone
I can be the one you call
When you’re low
Brother let me be your fortress
When the night winds are driving on
Be the one to light the way
Bring you home
Face down in the desert now there’s a cage locked around my heart
I found a way to drop the keys where my failures were
Now my hands can’t reach that far
I ain’t made for a rivalry I could never take the world alone
I know that in my weakness I am strong, but
It’s your love that brings me home
Lyrically, it’s brilliant. It expresses a beautiful desire to help someone along life’s journey. Lord knows we all need people in our lives to “light the way” home. Without their love and support, we might never get there. That desire to be someone’s shelter is biblical [“a faithful friend is a sturdy shelter, he who finds one finds a treasure” (Sirach 6:14)]. Not only can a friend provide shelter they can even be life-saving [“a faithful friend is a life-saving remedy” (Sirach 6: 16)] The desire to be that life-changing force is something I strongly identify with, and probably why this song evokes such strong emotions, both positive and negative.
God the Father told St. Catherine of Sienna said he purposely gave us a unique combination of gifts and needs so that we have no choice but to depend on each other. God has chosen us as the primary vehicle to dispense His gifts and make His love known. Because we aren’t sufficient unto ourselves, we are constantly reminded that we are in need of God and others.
But why have I established such differences… For I could well have supplied each of you with all your needs, both spiritual and material. But I wanted to make you dependent on one another so that each of you would be my minister, dispensing the graces and gifts you have received from me. So whether you will it or not, you cannot escape the exercise of charity! Yet, unless you do it for love of me, it is worth nothing to you in the realm of grace.” (The Dialogue of St. Catherine of Siena)
So, I think there’s a lot this song gets right. But, my inner monologue won’t shut up during the chorus: But what if you’re stretched too thin to be his shelter? What if you aren’t strong enough to be his fortress? What if you’re not the one he needs to call when he’s low? Wait, so you’re the one who’s going to bring him home? What makes you so sure you know the way? The singer seems so sure he has the answers and strength that his brother needs- but how can he know that?
I know I’m being too harsh. He’s expressing his desire to help, and he may be all too aware of his limitations. But really, the person I’m directing my irritation toward isn’t the singer, but myself. As you might suspect, my strong feelings about this song are rooted in my life experiences: my failed attempts at saving others and being on the receiving end of people who wanted to be my savior but went about it the wrong way. Those experiences have made me realize how hard it is to temper the desire to help someone while keeping in mind that, no matter how badly I may want to help, I may not be the one who can do the saving.
Whenever I come to the realization that I can’t help someone the way I want to, I try to ask myself why I’m so upset about not being able to help. Is it because I truly desire what’s best for that person, or is it because I, and only I, wanted to be the one to help them? I know that true love is disinterested and may mean being at peace with the fact that the people I love need to look for help outside of me. True humility means acknowledging that I don’t have all the answers, I don’t have all the resources, and I can’t be someone else’s “everything”. Anything I accomplish is only because God has chosen to work through me to accomplish it. Sometimes He works through me to help others, and other times He doesn’t. Logically, I understand all that. But it still doesn’t do much to comfort me when I’m in the midst of seeing someone I care about in pain, and the frustration I feel when my efforts don’t help.
During those times of frustration, I try to be honest with myself: why do I really want to be that person’s savior: is it to help them, or so I can feel good about myself? Do I only feel useful and worthwhile when I’m helping others? For myself, that is often the case. As a teacher, nothing beats the “high” I get when I help students, in big ways and small, day-after-day. Long breaks over the winter and summer are always hard for me. To go from daily impacting 100 lives to maybe a handful is a tough transition, and it does make me wonder if it’s possible to feel meaningful and fulfilled without helping a large number of people on a daily basis.
I often think about the quote from John Paul II, “Man cannot fully find himself, except through a sincere gift of himself”, and wonder if this explains why I’m so drawn to helping others. But the more I’ve thought about it, the more I realize that helping is only one of several ways we can make a gift of ourselves. Sometimes the best gift we can give someone is showing up, but not helping. In those moments when we don’t help, it’s because we know that that any attempt to help would only hurt. It’s not abandonment, but lovingly recognizing our limitations and acting accordingly.
And, I would argue that we are even more loving when we accompany someone in their pain, knowing that in the moment we don’t have anything more to offer than our presence and prayers. Compassion literally means “to suffer with”. Being compassionate doesn’t necessarily mean easing someone’s pain, but it does mean choosing to suffer with a hurting person. There’s no guarantee we’ll get that good feeling that comes from solve someone’s problems.
When we abandon our neighbor to God he continues to be supported by our love and the pain of being unable to help him accomplishes more than any self-confident action.” -Hans Urs von Balthasar
It may sound counterintuitive that a friend who can tolerate not curing is a friend who cares- but a true friend is someone who loves the person for who they are, and not for what they can do for them. A true friend knows when to be there, and when to step aside.
I wonder why else I want to help others. Is it because I can see myself in them? Do I see my own pain in them, and hope that by healing them, I can heal myself? Do I want to store up “social capital” in the hopes that one day if I’m in a similar position, they’ll return the favor? Is it because I can’t stand seeing them in pain, because it’s uncomfortable? Maybe it reminds me that I may someday find myself in that same situation, or maybe it reminds me of a pain that I know all too well?
When we honestly ask ourselves which person in our lives mean the most to us, we often find that it is those who, instead of giving advice, solutions, or cures, have chosen rather to share our pain and touch our wounds with a warm and tender hand. The friend who can be silent with us in a moment of despair or confusion, who can stay with us in an hour of grief and bereavement, who can tolerate not knowing, not curing, not healing and face with us the reality of our powerlessness, that is a friend who cares.” -Henri Nouwen
I think this hits on why “Brother” irritates me so much: it makes me confront my limitations in helping others, and my selfishness behind my seemingly selfless actions. It shows me how small my capacity to love truly is, and how far I still have to go to love as Jesus does. But, in the midst of that, I am comforted in knowing that no matter my selfish motivations behind helping others, it does not diminish the objective good that I did for another. No matter how pure or impure my motivations, the times that I helped them were real, and nothing can take that away. But most importantly, the times that I cannot help are times when God wants someone else to be my friend’s shelter, and I simply need to step aside so they can do that. Knowing that is the easy part, being at peace with that will be a lifelong struggle, and why I will probably always change the station when “Brother” comes on.