When we lose someone we love, when death, divorce, or other circumstances separate us from a "soul mate," we feel that our souls have been diminished. Human souls are nourished by love, by relationships, and to sever a relationship is to chip away at a person's soul. That is why we need prayer and healing, mediated through friends and other good people, to "restore our souls." Whether we believe that we will be reunited with our loved one in a time and place to come, or whether we believe that we keep a person close to us by cherishing that person's values and memories, our religious faith helps us to fill the emptiness.
You don't have to be religious to have a soul; everybody has one. You don't have to be religious to perfect your soul; I have found saintliness in avowed atheists. But maybe you have to be religious to have your soul restored. The prophet Jeremiah compares the person who scorns and rejects God to a tree planted in the desert, which will ultimately dry up and wither because it has no source of replenishment outside itself, which "he who trusts in the Lord . . . shall be like a tree planted by waters . . . its leaves are ever fresh, it has no care in a year of drought, it does not cease to bear fruit" (Jeremiah 17:7-8). When we are emotionally empty, we are not able to replenish ourselves. The restoration, the replenishment has to come from somewhere outside ourselves, from God and from people inspired by God to reach out to us in our need.
Should you know someone who has suffered a loss, whether loss of a loved one, loss of a job, or loss of a relationship, and you hesitate to contact your friend because you feel inadequate to the situation, because you are not sure you have the words to help her, please overcome that hesitation and reach out to your friend. Call her, visit her. You don't have to say anything besides "I'm sorry, I feel bad for you." Human souls are nourished by relationships, and your friendship, your going out of your way to show concern, has the power to heal a person's soul.
There is one other important way in which God restores our souls when they verge on wearing thin. As many readers may be aware, my wife and I had a fourteen-year-old son who died of progeria, the extremely rare rapid-aging disease. Almost exactly two years after his death, our daughter reached the age of becoming Bat Mitzvah and was preparing to celebrate that status by reading from the Torah and the prophets at a Sabbath service. As luck would have it, on the Sabbath closest to her thirteenth birthday, the Jewish liturgical calendar called for her to chant the fortieth chapter of Isaiah, concluding with the words, "Those who trust in the Lord will have their strength renewed. They shall mount up with wings as eagles. They shall run and not grow weary, they shall walk and not feel faint" (Isaiah 40:31).
And I have seen dozens, even hundreds, of instances in which the prophet's words proved true: the parents who, more than twenty years ago, gave birth to a severely brain-damaged child and against the advice of doctors and relatives took him home and cared for him day after day, year after year; the woman who, three times a week, goes to the nursing home to visit her elderly mother who is afflicted with Alzheimer's disease and cannot recognize her; the husband who faithfully tends to his wife as she loses ground to a degenerative disease and who speaks to me only of her pain and her courage, never of the burden it places on him. Had you asked these people five years ago, twenty-five years ago, if they thought they were capable of such devotion for so long, I suspect that each of them would have said, I hope I never have to find out if I am, because I fear it is more than I could handle. Where do people get the strength to be so caring, so compassionate, so human in the best sense of the word, if not from a God who renews their strength, who restores their soul when they have depleted their soul, so that they can do what they know is the right thing, even if it is the difficult thing, to do? If depression is the "dark night of the soul," God is the magnetic force that guides people through the dark night and brings them into a brighter world.
I am often invited to speak to conferences of doctors, nurses, hospice workers, or schoolteachers. When I do, I always save the last ten minutes of my remarks to address the problem of "caregiver burnout," the fatigue and depression that is too often the result of caring for the emotionally needy. I tell my audiences not to be afraid to love their patients, their students, not to be afraid to enter into their pain, out of concern that they will exhaust their own emotional resources and have nothing left for others in their care, let alone for their own families. I assure them that love and strength are not like bank accounts that grow smaller as you use them. They are like muscles that grow stronger with use. And I urge them to rely on God to renew their strength so that they can go on working and not grow weary.
When we have poured out all the love and all the strength we have on behalf of people who need our love and our strength, when we have spend ourselves holding the hands of the fearful and drying the tears of the grieving, when we have labored to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, and build homes for the homeless, and, despite our efforts, the problems are still there, where do we find the strength to go on?
When our minds are on the verge of giving in to compassion fatigue, when we know what the right thing to do is but we are tired of being charitable and helpful, that is when we need God to restore our souls, to replenish our ability to act like human beings, to understand that what is asked of us is not to make the world perfect but to make one person's life better. When events challenge our faith so that we find it hard to believe that this world is God's world, that is when we need God to restore our souls, to reinforce our ability to do good things. Even as a faithful shepherd gives his flock the food and water they need to be sheep, God, our faithful shepherd, gives us the strength of soul we need to be human.