I’ve been following a story lately about a two year old boy named Logan and his battle to overcome impossible physical odds due to a tragic accident. Normally I will pass by these stories on social media without looking because I find it difficult to engage in stories that involve suffering children- because truthfully I don’t want to feel burdened by the overwhelming emotions that are certain to flood my heart and mind. They will paralyze me. This time, though, a good friend of mine was asking for prayer for this family, so out of love and respect for this friend I chose to enter into the story.
The first picture I saw of Logan brought my heart to a dead stop. My stomach turned to knots and my eyes swelled with tears. He looked to be almost a spitting image of my own two and half year old son. But it was too late to look away. So I let myself follow this family’s story, pray through dripping tears, feel the grief of all the what-ifs, and stare at my own sons, begging God to never let this mother’s heartache become my own. This time I chose to take on the weight of shared sorrow, and even though a stranger to them, still enter into a combined force of prayer with others around the world in asking God for a miracle- however that was supposed to look. I will tell you that miracles are in fact happening through this tragedy, but at great personal cost to his family here on earth, as Logan is now freely and painlessly dancing with the angels. Perhaps he’s already been held in the warm embrace of my own sister. She loved children, so I’d like to think so.
I would surmise that we find it easier to disengage ourselves from stories like these so we don’t have to bear the weight of empathy. Empathy can be tremendously painful. Putting yourself in someone else’s shoes in order to have a better understanding of their suffering forces you, also, to shoulder a particular burden of grief, to take on the responsibility of genuinely caring about someone else’s story. And that comes at a cost, requiring your heart to sacrifice space and your mind to give up precious physical and emotional energy, usually with lasting effects.
So often, though, in our attempts to keep ourselves safe from these costly, painful expenditures, we cut that human connection as much as possible under the guise of “I have enough to worry about already.” But there is something very dangerous about disconnecting from empathy and consciously choosing to ignore the pain of others. You effectively dissolve the very thing our Creator placed within us that makes life worth living. Empathy is a vital bridge that connects us to other people, to our communities. Since we are relational beings by nature, if we choose not to couple ourselves with the suffering of others and only live into the hard things that directly confront us we will come to find that we are very much alone in our own suffering. Then, in our selfishness, we may ask why no one seems to care. The thing is, if you don’t invest into the hearts and lives of others, you will never receive much in return. A farmer will only reap what he sows and labors over. Scattering a few seeds of sympathetic words and halfhearted promises of prayers does nothing to develop sustainable relationships. Sweat equity is required, but not all are willing to link arms for the marathon (or lifelong) distance.
The fragility of life demands something more meaningful; more than just dropping off a meal, throwing a couple dollars in the outstretched cup, or telling someone to call you if they need anything. While nice, those things are not working to create sutures for the bloody, gaping wounds. They are just convenient, easy ways to offer a shadow of support so we can stop feeling guilty, pat ourselves on the back for “helping”, and move on with life. A meal gets eaten in twenty minutes. Then what? I will be the first to admit I am so very guilty of this.
Creating stitches to help stay the blood flow and bind up the wounds is complex and nuanced, and different for every person. But it always requires concentrated focus, attentiveness, and time. It may involve regular face-to-face interaction, learning how to ask hard questions in gentle ways, being mindful of personal space, being physically and emotionally available to offer support and encouragement, developing an awareness of non-physical needs as well as recognizing the very practical ones, and it’s prayer. All the time prayer.
When you enter into continuous prayer for someone and their suffering, you are opening yourself up to sharing in the burden of their grief. I don’t mean that you feel everything they feel or experience their same level of sorrow. That’s not possible because you aren’t them. I mean that when you are spending time in prayer on behalf of someone else’s suffering, you begin feeling the deep ache of desperation, agonizing over the seeming impossibilities, perhaps grieving over all the whys, beseeching God for the miracle that satisfies our human desires, but still trusting in a grander design greater than what our human minds can understand. You are investing heart-sweat equity into their lives without conditions or limits. You are looking their sorrow straight in the eye, seeing it, and surrounding it with the love of your heart cry.
It could probably be said that in general, the majority of people try to live their lives in ways to avoid being bothered. We want the easiest road possible (although I will add that seems to be more of the western world’s ideology). How tragic. Empathy complicates things. Being forced to acknowledge the frailty of our existence complicates things. We want to believe we are invincible and often live as if we are. Living out our daily routine as smoothly as possible means avoiding the bumps as much as possible- sidestepping the ruts and the unloveliness and all the things that don’t benefit us personally. What you end up with at the end of the day, though, is a one-dimensional reality. You see only your life, your perspective, your happiness, and your pain. And in that way, you are limited to only what you know, which is probably not a whole heck of a lot in the grand scheme of things.
I am just beginning to come to terms with my own one-dimensional lifescape. It’s disheartening and discouraging to look back over the course of my life and count up all the wasted minutes, all the squandered opportunities. But the joy returns in meeting my present head on and making conscious decisions to do things differently- to grab hands and hearts and hold them; to see a hell-spent person instead of the mental illness or addiction; embracing the grief-stricken and unlovely knowing that their brilliant shine is only hidden by dark clouds – not extinguished- simply waiting for the winds of grace-filled hearts to help push them back and reveal the sun once more.
Recognizing the whisper that is our life and choosing to walk onto the battleground of others’ pain effectively destroys the façade of “the perfect, happy life.” Because PSA… that isn’t actually a real thing. Wisdom isn’t gained through the lack of suffering, but in the presence of it.
“It may be hard for an egg to turn into a bird: it would be a jolly sight harder for it to learn to fly while remaining an egg. We are like eggs at present. And you cannot go on indefinitely being just an ordinary, decent egg. We must be hatched or go bad.” – C.S. Lewis
Every time you step into the darkness of someone else’s night, you begin to learn a new process for navigating the trenches, on account of everyone responds to help differently. As a person you broaden your scope of understanding, discover new methods of connecting to people’s pain, and more effectively embrace and support them while they stumble up and over their mountains. Because if you only exist to “make it through” yourself, what have you actually accomplished? If you only strive to be a decent human being that seeks to avoid pain, are you really even living? Can you actually connect with anyone in a real way? No, and you will end up rotting in your box of self-preservation. And then you will die, just as everyone else will, because that’s what all living things do. Death does not discriminate. So then what? You’ve wasted the precious gift that was your life by offering it only to yourself and withholding it from those who desperately needed what only you could offer.
“I postpone death by living, by suffering, by error, by risking, by giving, by losing.” –Anais Nin
I’ll say it again: the fragility of life demands something more meaningful. Don’t waste it away trying to play it safe, avoiding the hard parts and the hard people. Take on the burden of caring and you will come to discover the return on your investment far outweighs the personal sacrifice. It may not come back to you in the ways you might hope for or expect, but whether tangible or intangible you will encounter a level of experiential living far deeper and more meaningful than the empty shallows of a safe life.
“God had one son on earth without sin, but never one without suffering.” –Saint Augustine
Jesus knew well the path of sorrow. And as He knows it perfectly, since hanging broken on that cross while bearing the weight of the world’s pain and darkness all while fully human, He is able to enter into our grief with us as no other human possibly can. And it is that promise of companionship and absolute understanding that then gives us the ability to throw the weight of our life’s pain at His feet and keep on living. It grants us the strength to walk out of the false safety of a lifestyle of self-preservation and engage in the scarring battles and hard won victories of those around us.
If we can allow ourselves to recognize and acknowledge the truth that we are all in this together instead of “me vs. everyone else,” the selfish part of our human hearts that seeks to self-preserve will begin to dissolve and compassion and empathy will gain space to develop and expand. This is the grand design of humanity- to live our life and love out loud, to share the hope that Jesus brought through His death and resurrection, to carry each other’s burdens, and to give generously- from our possessions, but even more importantly from the stuff of our hearts, for within the stuff of our hearts is where love resides, which is far more real, lasting, significant, and healing than any dollar bill or casserole dish.
And love is the needle and thread that mends and sews our ripped up tatters into a collective, functioning whole. Without it, nothing else we do matters.
If I could speak all the languages of earth and of angels, but didn’t love others, I would only be a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. 2 If I had the gift of prophecy, and if I understood all of God’s secret plans and possessed all knowledge, and if I had such faith that I could move mountains, but didn’t love others, I would be nothing. 3 If I gave everything I have to the poor and even sacrificed my body, I could boast about it; but if I didn’t love others, I would have gained nothing.
4 Love is patient and kind. Love is not jealous or boastful or proud 5 or rude. It does not demand its own way. It is not irritable, and it keeps no record of being wronged. 6 It does not rejoice about injustice but rejoices whenever the truth wins out. 7 Love never gives up, never loses faith, is always hopeful, and endures through every circumstance.”
-1 Corinthians 13:1-7 (NLT)
Peace & Love, Amy