Pain & Empathy

Recently I told someone that I’ve had a headache since February 7 and the person responded in a way that I felt they were minimizing me, “Oh, now, come on, Scott…” they said.  No.  I won’t come on.  Seriously, I’ve had a headache since February 7.  A two centimeter (in diameter) piece of my brain was taken out and my head has hurt consistently since.  Sometimes it feels like what I’d call a “normal” tension headache and other times I find myself completely debilitated.

Usually it feels like there is a rubber band connected between my temple and the back of my head and sometimes it feels tight and “pops” with pain and other times, especially after I’ve taken medicine, it feels looser and less-noticable.

I say all of this not for pity, but with a point in mind.  Even before I was a pastor, my life has always seems to intersect with people who were hurting.  That’s not a bad thing to me, btw, but there have been many people I have sat (or stood) with and heard words like:

“My back just always hurts”
“Every since my surgery I can’t sleep”
“My sciatica keeps me from _______.”

Before my own recent experience, I guess I tucked these people into my prayer list and must have thought “oh, that’s too bad for them.”  I could sympathize, I guess (I could feel bad for them), but I had never felt pain that wouldn’t go away so I couldn’t empathize.

Pain in my life has always been fleeting.  In a way, that is weird to say.  Before this surgery I might have told you that I had experienced pain, but I, now, don’t think I had.  Oh sure, I have had headaches from time to time and I’ve had spasms, cuts, bumps, bruises and sores…   but I had never before experienced pain that wouldn’t go away and pain that  doctors simply called, “expected.”  Think about it: that means that there is nothing to do about it.  Pain that just “is.”

What I realize is: many of the older members of my congregation, especially, know what it is to have pain that just ‘is.’  Pain that is expected and pain, for which, there is nothing to be done.  Before a few months ago, I would have prayed for these prayer concerns without knowing anything of what they have felt, but now I have empathy for what these people endure.  I feel a pain inside that doesn’t simply go away or subside.

I wonder if that is why Christ was so willing to die upon the cross for us?  Until God felt our human pain, until God has walked a short distance in our shoes, God could not entirely understand us:  could not entirely love us as God wished to.  Perhaps, by feeling our pain, God and humanity could dwell within one another and have wholeness in a way that we could not otherwise experience!

As we come into Holy Week and as we consider what it means for us that Jesus suffered, we need to consider what it means that we should love others as Christ loves us.  Does that mean that we must suffer as others suffer?  Does that mean that we must experience what others experience?  Does that mean, as people of faith, we must open up our hearts to feel ‘the other?’

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