On Suffering and Empathy

I wonder if my friend, David Butcher, knows that every time we hang out, he leaves me with something to think about.  I don’t think he means to.  He’s just telling a life story or making some random comment about life.  But he always leaves me feeling contemplative.  Tonight I had the privilege of conversing with two precious friends of mine, sandwiched between bags of apples and plastic cases of mushrooms, near the bagged salad mixes.  While I was sharing life stories and catching up with my friend, Crissa, who I hadn’t seen for all-too-long, I saw David out of the corner of my eye.  Thankfully David is easily assimilated into conversation.  Turns out that Crissa had just attended a “Black Lives Matter” gathering, that David had spoken at.

David has this incredibly rich history, you see.  His however-many-greats grandpa had fallen in-love with one of his father’s slaves, had some beautiful children with her, and ran away to harbor his family in the neutral state of Ohio.  David still lives near the land his ancestor had purchased as a family plot.  He may even live on it.

During our divine Kroger encounter, David told the two of us that he thanks God for making him a black man in a society such as this, in order that he would have understanding of the sufferings of his fellow men.  That this moment in America’s history is explosive, and he’s glad that he doesn’t have the same privileges that most of his friends enjoy, because what he has is better… Understanding.  Empathy.  Compassion.

It reminded me of a moment, years and years ago, when my dear friend, Melissa, with tears warring against her eye lids, told me that she felt like a failure of a mother, because (thanks to her fybromialgia) she couldn’t hold her infant son like she wanted to, like “good mothers” do.   I understood.  I had been that mother.  It wasn’t fybromialgia.  It was voice nodules that prevented me from reading to my then-toddler son.  And I knew the pain of feeling like a failure, because I couldn’t do for my son what I believed all good mothers would do… snuggle up and read out loud.  I thanked God, too, that I understood her suffering as well, and that I could look her square in the face and tell her that she is an incredible mother… but that I understood.

Thanks to those voice nodules, and the months of verbal celibacy, I also understand some other things about living in other people’s skin.  I think I understand a little more, what it’s like to be someone with a language barrier, be it someone that speaks another language, or someone that can’t speak or hear at all.  And it made me want to learn sign language, and Spanish (I figure that’s my best shot at being bilingual).  I think I even understand a little bit of what it’s like to be an introvert in a crowd of people, not quite sure how to engage, always too slow on the response time for folks to take the time to be patient and listen (and if you are an introvert, I want you to know that your voice is just as important as anyone else’s!).  No one really wanted to dialogue with me, because it took too much patience for me to write out my responses, and no one around seems to know sign language (except my kids, who know a little bit, thanks to the “voice nodule years”).

It was easier for most people to pretend like I wasn’t there, than to put out the effort to make certain that I wasn’t overlooked.  I did have one friend (Wendy), who put in the effort.  When I thanked her for it, she had told me that she understood, because she, too, had been fortunate enough to encounter the life-experience that taught her empathy for someone in my shoes.

You know, we really don’t have to suffer exactly the same ways that others do, in order to experience empathy or compassion.  I have a strong sense that my friend, David, understands much more about others’ suffering than just about the struggle of having darker skin.  And I understood Melissa’s sense of insufficiency over her fybromialgia, although I’ve never suffered in that particular way.  And my friend, Wendy, she never had voice nodules.  But she understood isolation.

I am pretty sure that most of us were told to put ourselves in one another’s shoes when we were young, but for the most part have forgotten that wisdom.  We are far more likely to feel sorry for ourselves over our struggles, rather than to rejoice in them, like my friend, David.  I just love him for that.  That’s Christ in him!

So, that’s what he left me with.  Left me to muse over.  To rejoice in my weakness, my suffering, and my struggle, because, when you boil the fat off, that’s one of the things we all have in common… the struggle.  We all struggle with the same feelings of insufficiency, isolation, exhaustion and pain.  And there’s some really beauty in that.  Maybe we forget that, because we tend to polish stuff up for public viewing.  Thus the generic “good” response we are expected to offer up, when asked how we are doing.  I call it our Pinterest lives, because we all want our stuff to look like the stuff on Pinterest, and that parts that do are the parts that we put forward when others are looking.  We tend to clean our houses when company’s coming.  We try not to complain about our struggles, because we believe that no one actually wants to hear them.  And our society rejects folks whose suffering is impossible to hide.  Folks that are diseased, poor, homeless or sloppy.  Folks whose handicaps are worn in their faces and bodies, rather than their souls.   So, we isolate one another and insulate ourselves.  And we actually believe that our struggles are not common to man, even though the Bible actually, specifically says that they are.  1 Peter 5:9

I really believe that we would fare better as a society if we were more honest and vulnerable, and that empathy listens with the heart turned in towards the pain that someone feels, not just the circumstances that cause them to arrive at that pain.  I wonder if a really good friend is the one that won’t hide her face from your pain, or judge you for it.  And will be honest about her own struggles.

I’m really grateful for David sharing his stories with me.  Maybe that’s why I always leave our conversations with some soul-altering wisdom to chew on.  I love to hear stories.  I love story tellers.  Because a good story teller can make you feel what it’s like to live in one another’s shoes.  And empathizing with someone else’s struggle seems like a pretty solid remedy for the selfishness that parasitically feeds off our souls.  And empathy may just be the most healing balm for the suffering that haunts the eyes of our friends and neighbors.  DSCN0760

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