Years ago, I ended up in the emergency room with an injury at work.
The most painful experience, however, had nothing to do with the injury. It was in filling out my personal information. I had no one to list as an emergency contact.
My mother and I were estranged at the time. She lived too far away anyway, and at her advanced age, did not do well with crises. My sisters were also too far away, and my brothers would not have agreed to it.
I thought I was left with no one.
I posted in a CatholicMatch forum about it. People were sympathetic and suggested I list my priest or neighbor. I couldn’t see doing that – it would be an inconvenience for anyone listed, and I wasn’t willing to bother people with whom I had no personal involvement.
It was this idea of personal involvement that concerned me. I couldn’t understand how someone who was only a casual friend or a fellow parishioner would want to be someone’s emergency contact. I thought that was a role that should only be filled by someone really close.
To me, the emergency contact was not just someone who would answer a phone call. It was someone who knew everything about me. This person would have all the answers – my allergies, medications, prior surgeries and medical history.
This person would also know when to hold my hand, when to ask questions, and when to have the iPod ready; in short, this someone would have all the information that loved ones carry around inside their hearts.
I could not name one such person.
(Wo)man’s best friend
That day at the hospital, I managed to get around the issue: I listed my dog’s name as “roommate.” Other times I simply left it blank.
But I was constantly thinking about who was missing from my life.
About a year ago, I was complaining about this with a casual boyfriend.
“What’s the big deal?” he grumbled. “List me if you want.”
And when I tried to explain what the big deal was, he didn’t agree.
I began to understand during my first marriage that a full commitment encompasses a sense of guardianship over the beloved. Not guardianship in the sense of authority, but in the sense of caring for and feeling responsible for the beloved’s health and well-being.
In thinking about all the aspects of love, I remembered that “passion” and “patient” share the same root word: pati, Latin for “suffering.”
This reminded me of what my mother always said: that all love leads to the cross. We cannot love without understanding Christ’s suffering.
Because of this, I understood that true love does not happen during the honeymoon stage of relationships, where infatuation and attraction are the dominant feelings. It develops through a shared experience of suffering, particularly with a Christ-centered perspective.
True love is, in effect, the total willingness to be an emergency contact.
A sober pledge
I thought about what my then-boyfriend offered so casually and why he thought it was no big deal. He insisted that no matter what happened between us – because it was becoming obvious the relationship was going nowhere – he would be willing to be my emergency contact. Initially I was flattered, but after thinking about love in this way, I knew I would never list him.
If he didn’t see the importance of being an emergency contact, he would never understand the responsibilities involved in true Christ-centered commitment.
But the bigger question for me became: Why was I waiting to get involved in that kind of commitment with just one special person? Why couldn’t I share the suffering of Christ with friends and loved ones?
In denying them the option to be an emergency contact, I’d previously thought I was saving them from hassle. I came to regard it differently, however. Now I understood that I was putting limits on the scope and depth of the love between us.
I’d long understood the Greek words for the different types of love: agape, love of humanity; philia, love in friendship; storge, familial love; and eros, romantic love.
My mistake, it became clear, was in thinking that an emergency contact should be someone with whom I shared eros – and only eros. It is a mistake, I find, we commonly make in our search for The One.
In the end, I asked a friend with whom I already shared much suffering and heartache. We’d bonded quickly during graduate school, meeting for study sessions and reading groups.
In our work we found similar interests, tempered by the same sense of humor. Our friendship quickly developed into a Christ-centered experience of shared suffering: my divorce and her father’s disappearance.
I thought she would be a perfect choice, and I wasn’t wrong. When I asked, she rolled her eyes, sighed and said, “Like you really need to ask. What took you so long?”
Indeed, what had taken me so long?