Empathy

May 4, 2016

We come to the beatitude: Blessed are those that mourn for they shall be comforted.

          These are words are from a man whose whole life was one of uncertainty. Think about where he was born and soon after that his parents fled to Egypt. He had no measurable means of income and did not know from night to night where he would lay his head. In response to those following him, he had little in the way of security to offer them, but much in the way of risk. In response to their anxiety he told them to consider the lilies of the field. That was scarce comfort.

          He perhaps understood that life involves loss. Things and people slip away giving us an extraordinary stage to express our love for one another. Our life is lived in a series of lives and death, coming and goings, gains and losses. It starts when we enter the uncertainty of the world from the security of the womb. Louise Endrich[1] put it this way, [we] “no longer live beneath our mother’s beating heart.” We meander through infancy, growing into childhood. One day we leave home for the first day of school, an ending and a beginning. We make friends, lose friends and then make others. We will have our first fight, our first disappointment, our first betrayal, our first candy bar, our first crush. We will believe in Santa Claus and then we won’t, but instead we will realize the generosity of our parents. Experience will be gained and innocence will be lost. We will become convinced of our own invincibility and then a young friend dies and we won’t believe in that anymore either.

          We will be forced to reckon with the awesome power of human immortality. We will grow into adulthood and die to our youth. We will gain independence with our first job and will lose it, gaining our sense of vulnerability. We will learn to love and perhaps lose that too. And, yes, we may learn to love again. We may become parents and become forever changed. And we will learn, hopefully, to release them to their own destiny.

          Later still, our bodies will balk at things we used to do quite easily, but with a little grace, we wrap our minds around something called old age and we live out our days remembering all that was gained and all that was lost. We see what has transpired and anticipate all that is to come. In the words of Katherine Anne Porter, “We will even learn something on the day that we die. We will learn to die.”

          Jesus’ message is not about denying the inevitability of loss, but to experience gain and loss with one another, learning to love one another and, yes learning to mourn.

          When we suffer loss, our lives are, if only for a moment, disrupted, frozen in the tracks, turned on its head. Loss blows through us like the chilled breeze on a winter’s day. It catches us up short. It pokes holes in our myths of invulnerability. But we must look it straight in the eye and reckon with it. It will cause us to alter our carefully planned course. Consider this man from a 1995 news story:

 

      Actor Christopher Reeve, best known for his role as Superman, is paralyzed and cannot breathe without the help of a respirator after breaking his neck in a horse riding accident in Culpeper, Va., on Saturday.

      Reeve suffered fractures to the top two vertebrae, considered the most serious of cervical injuries, and also damaged his spinal cord, John A. Jane, the University of Virginia neurosurgeon treating Reeve in Charlottesville, revealed yesterday.

      Reeve, who is 42 and has enjoyed a prolific screen and stage career, was thrown from his horse and landed on his head during the second of three trial events in an equestrian competition. He was wearing a helmet and a protective vest at the time. "He has sustained complex fractures to the first and second cervical vertebrae . . .," Jane read from a statement at a news briefing. "Mr. Reeve currently has no movement or spontaneous respiration. He may require surgery to stabilize the upper spine in the near future."

      While Jane said it is "premature" to speculate on Reeve's long-term prognosis, medical experts were painting a grim picture.

 

He was a man with loss.

          Christopher, however had a gain. He had a dream. His dream was about empty wheel chairs and to quote him, the task was not remembering “what I have lost, but what life can I now build?” He grabbed hold of the four spokes of recovery: emotion, thought, passion and faith.

          Mourning is an emotion. It is anger at the loss, denial of change. It is the grief of a child that has lost its mother or an accomplished actor that has lost the use of his body. As we rail against the injustices of loss, we expunge the poisons of our own private pain.

          But mourning is also thought provoking. It is facing the ghosts of the past in light of the constraints of the present, allowing those constraints to serve as our daily reminder that we cannot hold onto anything that is physical forever. It is more than this too, because as Elie Weisel said about the suffering of the Jews, during the Holocaust, we need to speak out about all prejudice against others, in all its many forms, to prevent such things from happening again. The opposite of life is not death, it is indifference. Life is passion because to grieve is to care deeply about something or someone, giving us courage to give a portion of our heart to it. Love is painful because it risks loss; indifference is tragic because it risks nothing.

          Finally, mourning is theological. In the story, God’s covenant with Jacob didn’t insulate him from the loss of his youngest son to slavery. Nor David’s loss of his son to war. Nor in another story, the loss of Mary’s son to execution. In all these situations, including ours, there is a faint murmur that we hear deep inside – that still small voice - that tells us that everything is love. Love that defies all, even death. Love that is in everything and everyone. Love that is the essence of what we call God.

          I do not believe in God is benevolent or acting in grace when we escape suffering any more than I believe that God is malevolent when we don’t escape tragedy. God did not spook Reeve’s horse, inflict one man with AIDS and not another; is not responsible for famines in the Sahara, nor hurricanes in New Orleans, and certainly did not lead some to safety and condemn others in the World Trade Center on September 11. Life is arbitrary, but God is not. God is not in the business of loading guns, breaking hearts, bankrupting families, nor taking loved ones home. Blessing some nations, dissolving once loving relationships or destroying homes with a clap of thunder and a rush of rain. God does not engineer suffering, mete out punishment, hold grudges, nor did he crucify his son on a cross.

          God calls us only to life despite the circumstances; to leave the comfort of the womb of our lives and emerge from the darkness just as Tennyson described the little flower willing its way through the crannied wall toward the light.

         

          There’s a meaning and the message in the story of Jesus’ crucifixion. To make something out of our story we are to make resurrections whenever and wherever life’s cross is hung.

          I do not think that we can know how to comfort others unless we know how to mourn ourselves. We may not be able to heal another without knowing what it feels like to be wounded. It’s like a singer singing in a language that she does not understand. The pitch may be perfect, but the words belong to someone else. She would be a mere parrot uttering sounds that mean absolutely nothing to her.

          If I tell someone I know their pain, I must know their pain. It cannot be a rumor to me, it must be real in my experience and my language. To paraphrase Paul in I Corinthians[2], if I give all that I have to another person, but if I don’t have love, I have nothing for them.

          Empathy is a risky business. It’s risky because as we extend ourselves to others we’re allowing their condition to remind us of our own. We’re being reminded that what they are bearing is the human condition and the inevitability to which we are all exposed.

          I think of the people gathered around Jesus that day as he preached the beatitudes. I think of how much loss they had suffered, collectively and individually. As a community they had lost their land, their governance, their ancestry and their hope for prominence in the world. They had lost their temple once and would soon lose it again. Most had lost their freedoms and some had lost their faith. Most had shabby homes, menial jobs, failed crops and little hope. Security was a luxury enjoyed by others and envied by most of them. Women gave birth to ten children to have four survive.

          So this community whose sense of loss was what Jesus was appealing to. In this beatitude he draws his words from the prophet Isaiah[3] where there is a picture of a world of security and freedom born of the memories of our own oppression. Jesus tells the afflicted, the poor, the brokenhearted, the captive, and the aggravated about a world created by our own thoughts, intentions and dreams. It is the dust of the old that provides the mortar to build the new. They will wear garlands instead of ashes and be anointed with an oil of gladness. Yes, those that mourn will be blessed.

          What is it that God requires of us? Healing doesn’t entail problem solving or ways to minimize another person’s struggle. I remember when my daughter fell from her bike, breaking her teeth and skinning her arms and knees. It served no purpose to scold her for her carelessness or to assure her that her injury was a minor blip in the scheme of things. Sometimes we just have to bleed with others rather than stanch their wounds. We have to sit with them in mutual helplessness. We need to hear each painful wail, each solitary cry as though it was our own. Sometimes misery doesn’t love company, it depends on it.

          Turning our hearts toward those in pain is all they sometimes ask of us. They don’t want platitudes about how suffering is meant to wizen us or strengthen us or humble us. They don’t need to know our old theology about God being the mysterious will behind the loss of a family farm or a family pet, or that the scales of justice will somehow balance themselves. It was once said that the good casseroles are more appreciated than the bad theologies.

          So I have placed the end of this lesson in your bulletin so that you can take it with you. I am reminded of a Hebrew Scripture story: Job.

          After Job had lost all, his friends, Bildad, Eliphaz and Zophar came and raised their voices and wept... and they sat with him on the ground for seven days and seven nights. No words were spoken, the only sound emanating from the four men being the muted groans of private agony, drifting skyward like sacrificial smoke from an ancient altar, inarticulate supplications to a distant god.

          Job's friends were indeed wise to do what they did, to sit in silence, because they offered no answers, and because at least for those seven days Job knew he was not alone in the world and that his suffering was as inexplicable and unjustified to others as it was to him.

          And then they opened their mouths, and when they did they closed off all avenues of love toward their friend. One by one they weighed in, like a council of inquisition, insisting that Job's plight could only be rectified by owning up to whatever unnamed sins God was surely punishing him for. Needless to say, Job took little solace in their reprimands, and rightly so. What he wanted, what he needed, was neither explanation nor accusation. He needed their hearts. They gave him their minds. It did not suffice.

 

 

 

[1] Love Medicine

 

[2] I Corinthians 13

 

[3] Isaiah 61

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