“I did not know how to reach him, how to catch up with him… The land of tears is so mysterious.” –Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, The Little Prince
“You care so much you feel as though you will bleed to death with the pain of it.” J.K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix
I have had a double whammy of friends in anguish lately. There are moments that their pains weigh so heavily on my heart that it seems I can hardly stand it.
The first came last week when I was sitting outside in the cold watching my son’s track practice with his good buddy’s mom, a dynamic, beautiful-hearted woman who has become my friend this year. As we sat shivering in our respective blankets, she shared with me that she was quite sure that her cancer–that I knew had been a recurring nightmare in her life over the course of several years–had just made a comeback. She had recently felt the physical changes that were its telltale signs and was waiting for her upcoming appointments and the scans that would make it official and thereby commence the fight for her life (again).
The news flattened me. The more it sank in, the more deflated I became. I tried to imagine the heartbreaking scenarios that must have been thrashing around nonstop in her mind as she waited: the empty helplessness of leaving her two young boys without a Mom, the guilt of leaving her husband alone to do the work they dreamed of doing only together, the milestones, and the million ordinary, extraordinary moments that come with loving your people wholeheartedly. I couldn’t bear these thoughts even in my imagination, so it baffled me how she could even be functioning with those cards in her hand.
After being enveloped the rest of the week in the cloud of her situation and prospects, ruminating every day in my journal on how she could handle it, I was hit with a second blast via a Facebook post. One of my oldest friends had lost his vivacious younger brother suddenly. At the age of 42, he was simply ripped from his joyous life and from his close-knit family.
My heart burst for them, especially my old friend. I just wanted to wrap my arms around him and absorb some of his anguish, to lighten his new life sentence in Grief. I felt like I had been kicked in the gut, imagining the wrenching pain and unanswered questions left by such a loss, amplified by its suddenness and his relative youth. How does one go on in the face of something that feels so wrong, so unfair? How blah does food taste? How pointless the television? In the ensuing days, I have often become aware of myself shaking my head, realizing that I was thinking about it again and going through that agonizing cycle of hurt and questioning. I think of my own brothers–who are not even as close to me as my friend was to his–and I shudder at the thought of losing either of them, ever, much less at an age so young. It is devastating.
Then I surface from my despair and realize that, as bad as it seems in my heart, these are not even technically my problems. I can even escape them with some denial or distraction. My friends are the ones who are truly carrying the burden. They are the ones with no fresh air when they wake up at night or sit alone in their car. No matter how heavy my weight of sadness is, no matter how much I feel for them, I see now that I can’t feel like them. I can’t reach that level. It is just not the same, no matter how empathetic I am.
My reaction to that realization, as my heart translates now, feels a lot like guilt. I feel bad–weak, like a poor friend–that I can’t fully feel their pain with them, like I am letting them down somehow by not being as deep in the trenches of struggle as they are. I guess it is because my idealistic self wants to believe if I could put myself exactly in their emotional shoes, that I could somehow take their pain away, at least some of it, by sharing the load. But I can’t.
I think that is one of my “middle age realizations,” something I didn’t register when I was younger: we don’t really know anyone else’s struggle. We can’t fully know their pain because we aren’t in their skin. And even if we have experienced “the same thing” (e.g. each having endured the death of a sibling), we had different relationships and different pasts and different natural abilities to cope with Life’s inevitable tragedies and hardships.
I used to be sure that I was a true empath, that my ability to feel other people’s pain and understand them completely was almost supernatural. I don’t believe that anymore. I know I feel horribly for so many people who have been wronged by Life in any number of ways and want badly to ease their burdens, but at this age I am finally coming to grips with the fact that that doesn’t count for having walked a mile–much less a lifetime–in their shoes. It isn’t much at all, actually.
It illuminates another of my later realizations: compassion doesn’t count for much unless you are willing to act on it. It is all well and good to feel horribly for a friend with cancer or a sibling going through divorce or a family in your community who just lost their home or a whole race of people who were enslaved or robbed of their land, but if you aren’t willing to reach out and do something for them–a kind word, an apology, a meal, reparations, a hug, your time, your attention, your labor, your teaching of others–then your compassion is just wasted potential. You have to do something.
Maybe I am just getting old and this is what “wisdom of the elders” looks like, but it sure hurts my heart to know that as badly as I feel for my loved ones, I can’t even scratch the surface when it comes to their pools of personal pain. That is a hard lesson. Sometimes learning is no fun. But what is the alternative?
How about you? How much do you feel the pain of others, and how does that play out in your life? Open up your journal and explore your experiences with hardships and tragedies? Start with your own. What are the most difficult, most painful experiences that you have gone through in your life? Whose deaths have you had to face? Which relationships have ended or been severely damaged? Have you faced a health crisis? Have you been abused? Have you lost jobs painfully or wrongfully? Have you had to move away from loved ones or had them move away from you? Have you been the victim of a damaging crime, such as a sexual assault? Have you experienced war? Natural disasters? Have you lost your home or been in financial ruin? What else has left you traumatized? How alone did you feel when facing these crises? Did it seem that there was much that your loved ones could do for you emotionally, no matter how much they cared? Did it feel as though the burden was yours alone to carry, or could the compassion of others lighten your load? How would you rate the empathy of the people in your life at the time of your hardships? Could they understand your pain? Did you try to help them to understand? Was it worth the effort? Now turn it around. What are the biggest tragedies and crises that your nearest and dearest have had to face? Go back through the list of the questions above? Which ones have they gone through? Which are happening now, or at least most recently? How have you reacted to their situations? How badly do you feel when bad things happen to other people, whether you know them or not? Do you consider yourself highly empathetic, moderately, or not very? Does that vary widely depending upon your relationships and similarities with the afflicted (e.g. I have people in my life who are deeply caring and compassionate within their families but cannot seem to summon the slightest bit of empathy when it comes to different ethnic groups or religions or social classes; it is very disturbing.)? Have you been good about expressing your compassion (i.e. is it clear to others that you feel them?)? Have you found that your empathy has helped people in their times of tragedy? Does it make them feel better that you feel bad for them? How do you show it? Words? Simple presence? Hugs? Meals? Donations? Errands or other conveniences? Prayers or positive vibes? Do you sense that there is a line in each case that, despite your best intentions and best efforts, you simply cannot get a full sense of the pain someone is feeling, that there is a level of darkness that your light can never reach? How does that make you feel? Helpless? Frustrated? Relieved? When do you feel most alone? In that moment, is there anything that anyone can do? At the end, does each of us have our own final say in our recovery from tragedy and hardship, a point when others have done all they can and we have to shoulder the load of our survival and our happiness? Even if you believe that to be the case, is there ever an excuse to bail out and become less compassionate to the struggles and burdens of others? Leave me a reply and let me know: How deeply do you feel the pain of other people?
Give your heart,
P.S. If today’s letter resonated with you, please share it as you see fit. Let’s awaken our hearts to the pains of other people and then do the work to ease those pains.
P.P.S. If this type of self-examination appeals to you or someone you care about, check out my book Journal of YOU: Uncovering The Beauty That Is Your Truth at your favorite online retailers.