Lately I have been thinking a lot about the circumstances we find ourselves in. I find the response to those circumstances very interesting as well.
Why do I find that it is easy to empathize with suffering…or at least it seems easy, in comparison to joy?
Empathy is often seen as an understanding/recognition of the pain in another’s life but of course this is a limitation of the word…in reality to empathize is to comprehend and reflect the state of another’s emotional life be it suffering or joy or the reality that life is an inextricable blending of these things.
When one suffers one often finds that the world has suffered much the same way before them…in this there is empathy. On many occasions one senses that the world not only empathizes but also sympathizes with the offer of compassion – that is a joining in the passion that one is enduring…co-passion. It is a communal impulse.
Sometimes empathy, sympathy and compassion twist and become something different within me…something very much like competition rather than compassion. Imagine the all too common tale of the elderly gathered together in the old folk’s home chattering about a variety of things when one points out a bruise on their leg. Another chimes in “that’s nothing check out my gout swollen foot” to which I would wistfully remember when I had a foot, and so on and so forth.
Empathy, sympathy and compassion have long since vanished in my mind in the race to see who will enter the grave first followed by who will do so in the most horrific fashion. My reality has become twisted and I can no longer trust if what I see and feel are real or simply distortions of a lens warped in the over-heated forge of my vigorous imagination. Where does this impulse come from?
Do I do this with joy?
“I remember the happiest moment of my life when my first child was born?”
“That’s nothing compared to how happy I was when MY first child was born.”
I do not compete in joy. There is a recognition that in doing so I will diminish the joy of the other. It is innate.
I wonder if I can offer sympathy, empathy and compassion for more than the hurt of life?
I have been thinking of the image of the suffering Christ which is often offered as a balm to our own pain…and it is. But there is something more to it – it is not simply that Christ suffered that gives me a sense of solidarity with God (or reverse as it were) so much that Christ simply was. There is the suffering Christ to be sure but there is also the joyful Christ, the indignant Christ, the hungry Christ, the thirsty Christ, the Christ who ate and drank his fill, the Christ who was alone and the Christ in community, the naked Christ and the clothed Christ, the Christ who cried and the Christ who laughed. The Christ who was tempted and the Christ who overcame. Ultimately the greatest sense of solidarity I gain from Christ and those like him is that he is the Christ who was…the Christ who was human.
If all Christ could offer me was sympathy in my suffering I should think that very soon all I would ever do was suffer or feel ashamed at my suffering in comparison to the one who suffered more. This Christ offers me no hope – but a Christ who suffered, laughed, died and rose again – here is where I find hope.
I am reading Henri Nouwen’s book The Wounded Healer again and wondering if the Peter he speaks about in the beginning is me. Of course I was four years old when he wrote it so unless I was a very complex toddler it is mere coincidence. He speaks of one disconnected from the world; disconnected from the past and the future and living a life of accidents in the present strung together one after the other. Such a life is unmotivated and apathetic.
I must anchor myself to the world and the complete Christ wherever I find him or risk floating away.