Johnny’s mom tucked him into bed, kissed his cheek, turned out the lights and closed the door, hoping that Johnny would soon fall asleep.
But, for Johnny, like many 6-year-olds, a dark room with a closed door is not a friendly place to be. Soon, he began to cry out for his mom.
“Mommy, it’s dark in here, and I can’t see. There might be monsters in the closet.”
So, his mother came back to the room, turned on the light, opened the closet door and declared the closet to be “monster-free.” She kissed him again, pulled the blankets up to his chin, turned out the lights and closed the door, hoping yet again that Johnny would soon drift to sleep. But, not so.
“Mommy,” Johnny cried, “I think that I heard something under my bed. Can you come and see — please?”
Patiently, his mother came into the room again, turned on the lights and investigated under the bed, while Johnny hid under the blankets awaiting his mother’s report.
“There’s nothing here, Johnny. You are safe,” she said.
The nervous reply came immediately, “I don’t feel safe.”
“Well, you are,” his mother whispered calmly. “Now, go to sleep.”
Again, blankets tucked tight, a kiss on the forehead, lights turned off and the door closed. And, sweet silence. But, only for a moment.
“Mommy, I don’t like being alone in the dark,” Johnny called out.
With remarkable maternal restraint, Johnny’s mother answered back, “You are not alone. Get Teddy and hold him close. He will stay with you all night long.”
So, Johnny grabbed his floppy teddy bear and gave it a squeeze. “Mommy, mommy,” came a plaintive voice from behind the closed bedroom door.
“What do you want, Johnny?” came the equally plaintive voice of his mother.
“I want something with skin on it.”
Whether we are 6 or 66, there are times when we are alone in the dark with the door closed. Somehow, we have become isolated from friends and loved ones. Maybe it is the first day of school or maybe it is the last. Maybe we have moved to a new place or begun a new journey, or maybe we haven’t moved but our trusted and beloved companions have.
And, it is dark. We can’t see the path in front of us, and so we don’t know where we are going. Each step is hesitant and anxious. And, maybe there are monsters. And, the door is locked. We are stuck. There is no way back, and there is no way out. All that you can do is be in this space.
Life is scattered with these moments. And, when they come to us, there is no substitute for, as Johnny called out, “something with skin on it.” Teddy bears, Zoom calls, emails, Facebook messages and emojis are all kind and well-intentioned but somewhat distant and detached.
There is nothing to compare with the gift of presence — someone who physically comes into our loneliness, someone who waits with us in the dark until the morning comes, someone who helps us be in the liminal space between what has been and what is yet to be.
I wonder if this longing for “something with skin on it” is wired into our most basic humanity. The words from the Hebrew account of creation have the Creator saying, “It is not good for the (hu)man to be alone.”
“Something with skin on it” is more than our primal human need, it is also our one of our most precious human gifts. The realness of an unfiltered voice, the warmth of a caring touch, the genuineness of a truly attentive ear, the practical blessing of a helping hand, the time given to be with another, these are rare and treasured gifts that we can give to each other.
This week we launched the first of 12 Mercer On Mission programs that will spread out around the world. We will protect miners from mercury poisoning, provide clean water, offer medical and mental health care, engage in training and education, and we will fit over 700 amputees with prosthetic legs and hands. While these projects are all different, they are really quite the same; we are becoming the “something with skin on it” that will bring compassion, light and hope to those who are alone in the darkness behind their own locked doors.
You don’t have to go around the world to be that “something with skin on it.” Maybe you only need to go across the street or down the hallway to give your gift. The wonderful surprise is that in giving this gift to another, you receive back more than you have given away.