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3/21/12 at 11:59 AM 1 Comments

Sharing the burdens of others: sympathy, empathy, and Jesus

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By Jeremy Egerer

The other day, a young man I know through work, Eddie, approached me with tragic news. His good friend's sister, who had recently given birth, had (due to what appears to be medical errors on behalf of the hospital) given birth to a practical stillborn. She was heartbroken, and though Eddie knew I was unacquainted with her or her family, he couldn't help but share his sorrow.

I've never had an experience which could be considered similar, so I could only imagine, through a clouded intellect, exactly what she was feeling. But though I didn't know the woman, and though I'd never spent months in anticipation of a son, only to discover upon what is supposed to be a climactic moment that he would never live to call me father, I was struck by a sense of sorrow. And if I'm to speak entirely honestly, I was somewhat amazed -- on a philosophical level -- of the mysterious nature of sympathy itself.

I say this because sympathy is a condition in which we do not emotionally understand the suffering involved, and yet we hurt. Empathy, to me, seems more a natural fit for the human experience, a sharing of mutually experienced pains, one person's similar experience leading them not just to sympathize, but to understand and feel the suffering of another. But there could be little camaraderie, particularly in man's formative years, if empathy was mankind's sole resource. For though men may experience empathy, it's something into which every person needs to grow, an emotional capacity that fills with every experience, day by day, the human being becoming more and more capable of not only understanding the plights of his neighbors, but feeling alongside them. It's not often until after one loses his first love that he understands the lyrics of old country songs.

It's impossible for everyone to experience sympathy and empathy alongside every person, of course, as everyone is limited by their own cognitive and emotional capabilities. One can't concern himself with the entire planet's sorrows, and nurses, as I've been told, have the tendency after many years of service, to become sympathetically aloof due to consistent overexposure to suffering. But almost the opposite situation, resulting from inexperience, can be observed of the newborn. For though untempered by the struggles and pains of life, and thus particularly sensitive, he begins his journey without having truly shared emotional experiences, and is perhaps the least empathetic of humans, almost experientially blind to the suffering of others. He may by instinct know that someone is faring poorly; he may cry when others are crying; he may become stressed when his parents argue; but he can't be expected to feel what they are feeling in the way they are feeling it. And though some babies can certainly be said to be more sympathetic (on some level) than others, as far as empathy is concerned they are essentially selfish, a point easily demonstrated by the bluntness and cruelties of children. Empathy is something into which they grow, and something which age and experience can bring.

And this is why Eddie's story was so touching to me. I don't know how long he and this woman had been friends (he said only that they had been friends for a while), and I don't know exactly how close they are. But through her suffering, he sorrowed; and through this collective sorrow they joined together with others who hurt alongside them, and who championed the mother's cause though the child wasn't their own, though perhaps none of those who helped had shared a similar experience, and though in many cases, it can be said that others didn't even know the mother. It was a statement that love didn't need regard its boundaries within experience alone, but could advance beyond personal limitations themselves. For this woman, though she suffers greatly, doesn't suffer alone. At this moment there are people who are thinking of her, planning to care for her, and praying for her, many whom she doesn't even know. And beyond even those, we must recognize, there is a God in heaven who sees not only her suffering, but ours as well.

Such sympathy isn't merely an accident, but rather an intended result, a quality divinely impressed upon man by the Creator, an imperfect, partial portrait intended to reflect his relational qualities. We were simply not meant to live alone, to suffer alone, to die alone. We were meant to love one another, to care for one another, to weep for one another, and to lean upon one another. This Christmas season we celebrated the life of Jesus the Messiah, who came to serve the poor, to save the lost, to bear the weight of sinners, and to express not with words alone, but with His every action, that it is the quality of God Himself to bear our burdens. He's the God who knows us each by name, who cares when even our families do not, who was willing to leave the heavenly domains in servitude to men who wouldn't dare to do the same, oftentimes even in reciprocity. If we're to celebrate Him, it would be in vain to do so while rejecting the very qualities we claim to love about Him. Though He empathized with us, having shared the worst of the human experiences, His earthly advent necessitates that He first had to sympathize.

So though life brings many tragedies, some great and others small, and though such scars may never heal completely, nor may they heal swiftly, and though it may sound cliche, there is a dawn after the night. And sometimes, though it may be difficult for those in the midst of tragedy to see upon that very moment, had it not been for the winter, perhaps we would never have been able to understand the beauty of springtime. We oftentimes never know who our friends are until we need them, and we would never know how much God loves us, if not for Jesus' own suffering on our behalf, the triumphant good which is born of tragedy and adversity. For love is not only expressed through words, nor is it a simple feeling. It manifests itself most perfectly in service, in sacrifice, and in fidelity; and there cannot be service without a need, there cannot be sacrifice without loss, and fidelity could not be fully expressed without trial. As faith without works is dead, so is proclamation of love without charity.

So I ask you, though Christmas is over, and the almost redundant and oftentimes superficially seasonal cries for charity have ended, to remember Eddie's friend, and that perhaps through you may not at this moment recognize it, there are people all around us, like her, who need our love. We may have a neighbor who lost his job, who needs a warm meal for his family. We may attend church with a woman whose medical bills are piling upon piles, who is struggling to pay them. Perhaps our coworker may have lost his wife, or is away from home, and is likely to spend his days alone. We must look for these people; find them and care for them; comfort them. Life is simply too short to even rely upon our experiential empathy, like a person who only cares for the brokenhearted because his heart has been broken. We don't need to hurt in order to help the hurting, and Christ's love isn't seasonal: let us care for them now.

Jeremy Egerer is a recent convert to Christian conservatism from radical liberalism and the editor of the Seattle website

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