My college roommate Elizabeth was a great person for me to live with. I tend to be a rather emotional individual, but Elizabeth was generally a very calm person. She didn't seem terribly perturbed by my occasional tears or my rants about the crazy things that were happening in my life. She was also a very thoughtful person who always tried hard to do and be her best. I was inspired by what a strong, confident person she seemed to be. I was frequently at war with myself, but Elizabeth seemed to be far more at peace with herself. I still wish I knew what her secret is.
Still, even the most steady people come up against roadblocks sometimes. There were a few occasions when Elizabeth couldn't figure out what to do. She would feel stuck or discouraged (rather like I felt most of the time). And when those times came, I would take her out for ice cream. "Ice cream solves everything," I would say, and we'd head off campus (a rather rare occurrence at our small college) and find some ice cream. Afterward, Elizabeth inevitably felt better, even if we hadn't managed to find a solution to her problem. After ice cream, the problems seemed more manageable, somehow. It worked every time.
So does ice cream really solve everything? Not for me, anyway—believe me, I've tried. But it wasn't the ice cream that was the point, really. It was the fact that I wanted to take her out and buy it for her. It was the act of friendship, the chance to stop worrying and feel happy for a little while, that made the difference for Elizabeth. Since she and I had a history of happy outings involving ice cream dating back to our freshman year, that was the best choice for me to make her feel happy. With a different friend it might have been something else, but with Elizabeth the magic cure was ice cream. (That, or the "possessed leg trick," a silly little spectacle that would probably still make her laugh every time if I could still get myself into a goofy enough mood to do it properly.)
I never had the power to solve Elizabeth's problems or to take away the fear or pain they might have caused her. Today I am still surrounded by people I care about whose lost loved ones I can't bring back, whose illnesses I can't cure, whose marriages I can't save, whose pain I can't take away. But taking away their pain isn't my job. As their friend, I'm supposed to give them joy and happiness to mix in with the pain so that its bite no longer feels so strong. I'm not supposed to solve their problems for them; I'm supposed to take them out for ice cream. Every bit of love I give makes a difference, even if the problems are still as large as ever. My friendship and support gives the people I love the strength to face their challenges, the will to keep going in spite of the pain.
I know that I am not the only person who feels helpless sometimes when I look into the tear-streaked face of someone I love, or I read the heart-wrenching words of someone who has lost something that she can never get back. All I can do is try to love and support that person in whatever way I can. I may never be able to make what happened to them OK, but I can help THEM feel OK about their lives in general, I can help them feel strong and happy enough to keep going in spite of it. I can let them know how special they are, how much their beautiful hearts transcend whatever dark thing has happened to them. I can take them out for ice cream. I can meet them for coffee and chocolate cake. I can hang out with them at their homes or write them a heartfelt letter or make them a present. I can take them to a movie or babysit their kids or bake them cookies. I can smile and tell them that I love them and that I care. I can be an ear to listen, a shoulder to cry on, a friend to laugh with.
It's easy to feel powerless when we think about the things that we can't do or change. But the truth is that we all have an amazing amount of power to improve the lives of the people we care about just by loving them. Something as seemingly insignificant as going out for ice cream can make all the difference to a friend in need.