Published on April 17th, 2014 | by Nathaniel0
Empathy: Are You Letting Your Pain Make You Numb?
If you opened this post with the intention of reading it all the way through, I commend you. It’s so much easier to tread through life ignoring the throbbing beats that signal maybe we’re not as whole as the veneer we front. It’s much easier to open “21 Signs Your Sister is a Superhero” or some other random Buzzfeed post, avoiding anything that questions who you are and how you relate to those around you. But you’re reading this, so maybe like me, you’ve experienced or are experiencing pain and have questioned if it’s making you into something you don’t want to be (numb).
It’s been a year and a half since I’ve been fighting to overcome the thick of a still undiagnosed, multi-symptomatic, chronic disease that’s been affecting my immune system for the past five years. On the outside, I look physically healthy, fit (or so I’ve been told), and even been questioned “If I’ve been working out, told that “I must live in the gym…” Not exactly. Glory to God for whatever façade is elusively painted on the outer seams of this body, but there’s a different reality. My muscles have been breaking down at an incredibly dangerous rate, nerve tests have come back indicating severe neuropathy, white blood cell count has been dangerously low, my liver enzymes have been consistently elevated, in addition to other complications. A year ago, the pain was so bad, I was unable to work, leave my apartment, or even have phone conversations. And praise God because I’ve made remarkable progress through prayer, with the support of community, my family, my team of doctors, and medical treatments and prescription meds, but the reality of the fight, the pain that still manifests- seems unbearably present at times.
Is it just me or does the emotion of pain isolate in a way that no other emotion can? Happiness is shared, joy is given, love is received, but pain is internalized, burrowed in the sinews and fibers, the depths of our being. And while all pain hurts, I know firsthand how physical pain intersects every aspect of your life- mental, social, emotional, and so on.
Last night, I went to Mid-week, Wednesday night service at my home church, Mosaic. One of our primary pastors, Hank, led the conversation- it had been over 45 days since he had been seen. During his talk, he shifted to a chair. The atmosphere trimmed the residual laughter from a joke that had been made and Hank entered the vulnerable place of revealing the physical pain he had been experiencing. An intense ringing had been triggered in his brain from a blow he experienced while playing basketball, but not just any ringing- one that had combined with the brain difficulties he had from a coma in his youth, one that ignited anxiety, uneasiness, and the inability to sleep. With tears in his eyes, it was clear that the physical pain had traversed the lines of mental clarity.
And I couldn’t help but relate to his experience. After Hank finished talking, our entire community outstretched our arms to Hank and prayed. But while trying to focus and shift my prayers to his trials and his needs, my mind kept jerking me back to my own circumstances- the pain that I had gone through and am going through. And I got angry in that moment, because I felt selfish, self-indulgent, for diverting back to my current health issues when I wanted to pray for him, when I wanted to support him. Was my pain crowding my ability to see pain of others? Had I entered a vacuum where I was now numb, where I would now trivialize their hurts because they “seemed” incomparable to my pain? Was empathy a distant cry from what I could now offer?
I woke up in the middle of the night and began to journal and pray, questioning what I had once told myself through the thick of my pain- “Everyone is going through something. Your pain isn’t any worse than what someone else is experiencing.” How “I don’t want anyone’s sympathy.” But didn’t I- don’t we?
You see where I think empathy meets someone else’s pain in a way that sympathy can’t is that empathy is a quiet recognition while sympathy often speaks. Empathy doesn’t try to understand, try and relate, or try and create a gradient that superimposes their pain above someone else’s. Empathy meets the pain of others in the way that Hank said, its ability to listen. To still. To hear. To avoid reason and comparison. When you allow the volume of your life to overshadow your ability to listen, you’re letting your pain make you numb. And regardless of what we’ve been through, regardless of how much it hurt and hurts, we always have the ability to choose empathy- to listen.
Colossians 3: 12 “Put on then, as God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, compassionate hearts, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience,”