Cry of the Heart


I am on a plane. There are three mentally handicapped men two rows behind me.

I saw them at the gate. Actually, I heard them at the gate—heard someone cry out, as if in sudden pain. I turned immediately to see what was the matter. It was a man whose body was torqued, whose face was disfigured by the force of his cry. I could see that he was mentally ill. A woman who was clearly a companion to this man, and two others like him, shushed him gently.

While I waited at the gate there were frequent load groans, cries and what sounded like heaves of despair. People around me looked slightly annoyed.

When I found my seat in 27D I noted that the criers were two rows behind me. (On a five and a half hour flight!) This would be like sitting next to a crying baby for endless hours, I figured, and I located my ear buds. Beethoven’s Eroica would have to come to my rescue.

The cries came on soon enough, and when the plane hit turbulence, and even the flight attendants had to be seated and belted in, the groans and ejaculatory shouts rose like a chorus from the three men.

I had thought I would be mostly annoyed, but in an odd way the more they yelled the more I was moved. When I heard the first cry, sitting in the gate, I turned instinctively to see who was injured. “Normal” adults only cry out like that if they are in sudden physical pain. Once I realized that these people weren’t “normal” I could go back to my emails: the noise was not connected to anything real. It was just crazies.

But now, hour after hour, wail after wail, I began to feel differently. Could these men simply be giving voice to all the cries of us “normal” people? If the rest of us cried when we were sad and lonely or in pain or afraid the whole plane would be in Babel. But we have all learned how to keep those cries stifled in our souls.

Jean Vanier, who founded the L’Arche communities—where the mentally handicapped live with companions in compassion—once heard the cries of men like this. He visited a small residence for the handicapped and heard shrieks and moans that at first disturbed him. Ultimately he heard something deeper, echoes of what he called the “primal cry.” He began to hear, “Do you love me?” or “Why have I been abandoned?” or “Has my life any value?” or simply, “Do you want to be my friend?”

This is the cry of every man and woman. It is the call that Jesus found impossible to ignore. If we listen carefully we can hear even the silent cry of all our “normal” friends and loved ones. Then a smile or a gentle touch can offer simple compassion.

I disembark with deep gratitude to these three beautiful men who taught me that I did not need my ear buds and Eroica to shield me from my friends, to hear the sound of being truly human.

7 Responses to Cry of the Heart
  1. Michael Anderson
    June 19, 2015 | 10:01 am

    Thanks David for this piece. The criers are indeed expressing something primal, something many feel but repress or simply ignore.

    As you say, there are those who can’t ignore it. Which reminds me of the movie The Green Mile, and big John Coffee, the Christ figure, a big, muscular black man who, at the end of the film, chooses to go to the electric chair for a crime he didn’t commit, because, as he tells us, he feels he world’s pain every day, every hour and he’s tired and he just wants it to stop.

  2. Don Livingston
    June 19, 2015 | 10:44 am

    Thank you!

  3. Robin Fisher
    June 19, 2015 | 1:12 pm

    Thankyou David. Living down in Charleston there has been an a primal cry, in places of worship and all around. The pain and prayer for our loved ones is loud and also there is
    The silent pain. Yesterday will always be remembered as a black day in the history of Charleston SC.
    Love to all at ST Lukes

  4. Suzy Seymour
    June 19, 2015 | 1:39 pm

    Thank you for sharing this story! God continuously places people in our paths to teach us lessons. A story about thankfulness, compassion, mercy, humility and faith. Thanks again! ⚓️

  5. Kathy
    June 21, 2015 | 12:39 am

    I wish that those who were accompanying the three men could have read your post, David. How heartened they would be that someone saw these men as they did. And wouldn’t it be good if all of the other passengers could read it,too. I’m wondering what the story was. Where were these men being taken and why. I’m just glad that they were treated gently by their caretakers and that there was one man on the plane who saw beyond the external. I hope I would have done the same. Thank you, David.

  6. cynthia klokel
    June 21, 2015 | 12:04 pm

    Dear David, I remember shaking your hand after a Sunday morning service and asking you how it could be that whatever your sermon was about, it seemed to be written and spoken for my benefit. “How can it be? How could you know what my struggles were?” I asked. And so it still seems that from week to week, whatever you’re sharing with us, is written for me. Richard Rohr, in this morning’s meditation on St. Francis, mentioned the “privileged seeing” of those who have been initiated by life. And I thought of you. How else could it be that you have so much to offer us? 🙂

  7. Audrey Scanlan
    June 22, 2015 | 6:17 am

    Henri Nouwen has written extensively about his time at a L’Arche community; I commend it to you. My favorite book of his on the topic is “Adam.” It is a slim volume that tells of his relationship as Adam’s caretaker. Very powerful.

    I wonder about the use of the term “mentally ill.” To me, the folks that you are describing are not “mentally ill” as much as they are differently abled.

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