Empathy. It’s “the ability to understand and share the feelings of another.”
We’ve all known it at one time or another—a friend who comes alongside and offers support, love, comfort, and understanding. But not just anyone can offer this gift of gifts. Most often it comes from the heart of what Henri Nouwen called a wounded healer—a person who, as a result of their own suffering, can truly say “I understand.”
It’s our suffering that qualifies us to offer this salve that comforts like none other.
Empathy doesn’t insist on “solving” a problem. It enters in to the problem, as it reaches back to a time when suffering was reality and not theory. And from that tender, broken place, empathy offers words and care that are potent to heal.
It’s a precious and rare gift. And it’s expensive.
Almost two weeks ago, after days of sitting at my computer for hours on end, I stood up wrong and my lower back and hips spasmed. I shuffled to my bed and carefully laid down . . . where I stayed for almost three days. When I finally could move without extreme pain, I began a slow shuffle to wellness. I’ve never hurt my back so badly.
Simple, thoughtless things, like putting on my underwear and socks, took on new meaning and required both thought and strategy. Initially, I needed my husband’s help to sit and stand, including time spent on the “throne.” Jeff once worked in a nursing home and has a special understanding and empathy for the weak. I, on the other hand, was clueless, until now.
Those first few days, I came to understand why the elderly stand up slowly as they lean on their thigh, chair arm, or the table in front of them. It made sense to me why they push on their back, as I discovered how the pressure seemed to keep it from spasming.
Simple household chores were handed off to others, and the “mindless” straightening I do as I live and work in my house was neglected. I tried extra hard not to drop anything so that I wouldn’t have to ask yet again for help. I couldn’t pick up my grandkids, and I had to remind my own people to hug me gently.
And sneezing? Oh, my goodness! I did all I could to avoid it. When it could no longer be held off, I braced myself and prayed for mercy.
I’m moving better now. I still have to take transitions from sitting to standing slow, and if I’m not careful, I can feel my back twinge as it warns me to settle down. I’ve learned that I can’t ignore and neglect my body without paying for it. More than that, I’m walking away (slowly) from this experience with new empathy.
Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ,
the Father of mercies and God of all comfort,
who comforts us in all our affliction,
so that we may be able to comfort those who are in any affliction,
with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God.
For as we share abundantly in Christ’s sufferings,
so through Christ we share abundantly in comfort too.
If we are afflicted,
it is for your comfort and salvation;
and if we are comforted,
it is for your comfort,
which you experience when you patiently endure
the same sufferings that we suffer.
Our hope for you is unshaken,
for we know that as you share in our sufferings,
you will also share in our comfort.
~2 Corinthians 1:3-7 (ESV)
The commentary of The New Geneva Study Bible says, “All consolation and encouragement in the world has its origin in God Himself.”[i] The inevitable and unavoidable suffering of life in a fallen world finds redemption in the intimacy of relationship we gain as we experience the comfort of God in our pain.
Whether it’s a couple of weeks of debilitating back trouble or years of sorrow and trial, we can comfort our hearts with the knowledge that our suffering is never for nothing. Through it, we come to understand the love of our Father, the suffering of Christ, as well as one another’s pain in a way that we never could otherwise.
As we learn empathy, we gain the extraordinary grace to share in God’s comfort and to become vessels of His healing.
Have you paid the price for empathy? Let’s talk in the comments.
[i] R.C. Sproul, ed., New Geneva Study Bible (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1995), 1828.
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