“Loneliness and the feeling of being unwanted is the most terrible poverty.”—Mother Teresa
New Year’s Day.
She thought it would be cold enough to numb her body and lull her to sleep. Once asleep, her lungs would fill with water, and she would drown. It would be peaceful, she hoped. She was ready to go—to escape the horror she was living.
The handcuffs she wore were to help ensure that she wouldn’t try to swim, to fight for her life. She didn’t want more life. She’d had enough.
The water in San Francisco Bay was doing its job. Hypothermia’s effects were increasingly evident. Her core temperature dropped, and her blood pressure, heart, and respiration rates decreased. She was falling into a stupor, with growing mental confusion.
At a distance, she thought she saw something; it was orange and bobbing on the water’s surface. It was getting closer to her—a loose buoy, maybe? As it floated up to her she saw it had eyes, a nose, and a mouth. It was an older woman who swam daily in the Bay’s waters, having trained herself over the years to endure its frigid, penetrating chill.
Oh, my dear. What are you doing out here? Are you swimming too?
She was angry and didn’t want to answer. In her deteriorating mental state, she couldn’t answer. She didn’t want anyone to know she was there. She didn’t want to be saved from the water. She only wanted to be saved from this life, which meant dying in the water that day.
The swimmer saw the handcuffs, and she was now more concerned. She realized what was happening.
Oh, honey. What are you trying to do? I don’t know what your troubles are.
I don’t know why you are trying to do this to yourself. But I know that Jesus
can help you. If only you ask him, Jesus will help you.
Quickly, the swimmer raced toward the shore and notified the Golden Gate Park police. Even as the woman drifted further into lethargy, her anger mounted. She was angry that her plan was disrupted. Within minutes an officer came toward her, riding a horse. The horse was swimming through the water. As they approached, the officer reached out with a hook attached to a long pole. Grabbing her handcuff s with the hook, he and his horse began pulling her toward the safety of the shore.
Blanket upon blanket was heaped upon her. There wasn’t much hope that she would survive. But miraculously she began to thaw, both in body and in spirit.
Thirty-four years later, we sat across the table from her and listened in rapt attention as she shared this unbelievable story. It was a turning point in her life, she said. We asked her why.
“When that old woman swam up to me out in the water, even though I was there to die, something inside me showed me that someone actually cared. I realized that God actually cared about me, that God would go to any length to get me back. Once I was pulled to shore, these words kept running through my mind:
“Where can I go from Your Spirit?
Or where can I flee from Your presence?
If I ascend into heaven, You are there;
if I make my bed in hell, behold, You are there.
If I take the wings of the morning,
and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea,
even there Your hand shall lead me,
and Your right hand shall hold me.”
“God was there with me. God came to me through that woman. I was given a new chance at life.”
One of the main reasons she went into the water that day was because of the conflict she felt about her sexual identity. She had always felt different. She had always felt horrible about that difference because she was constantly condemned and criticized, especially in the church. Her faith was deeply important to her, and yet her faith tradition communicated the message that people like her were immoral, unworthy, and unwanted. Over time, that message started eroding her soul to the point that she felt she would be better off dead than alive.
She felt the “most terrible poverty”—utterly alone and unwanted.
What good was it, she wondered, to be alive? What was the point?
As she told us her story, we could hear the complete and intense loneliness she had felt. A lifetime of hearing that she was no good stripped away any esteem she had and closeted her away in a prison of misery and hopelessness. She began to hate herself and descended into an abyss from which she believed she could never emerge. That self-hatred brought her to the point where the suicidal waters of San Francisco Bay seemed a better answer than continued life on earth. Death seemed like a sweet release from it all.
So she tried to end her pain in the Bay, to have her body swept out to the uttermost parts of the sea.
But even though she was living in misery, she came to see that there was a force pulling her back from the deep, back to life, back to find worth and her soul again.
In our time sharing with her, we wanted to remind her that she is loved, that she is significant, and that the world is a better place because she is in it. We wanted to remind her that the very tenets of her faith teach that love trumps everything else, that love always wins, that love is always infinitely stronger than hate and fear and condemnation. Our faith simply calls us to love and to let God shape us into whomever He wants us to be. For it was God who formed us from the beginning.
Michael Gingerich, M.Div. and Tom Kaden, M.Div., are co-founders of the non-profit ministry Someone To Tell It To, which provides a compassionate presence and a listening ear to those who need a safe place to share their stories. They are based in Harrisburg, PA, but also reach people throughout the world through social media.
“The Most Terrible Poverty” is excerpted from their recent book, Someone To Tell It To: Sharing Life’s Journey.