On Empathy

It is not enough to feel bad.

A classmate-a friend,  so resilient, abounding with courage and joy- is plagued with the heavy burden of cancer. Our hearts bruise with grief and confusion. Sorrow clouds joy.  

Our screens splatter with Syrian blood, mocking the grief we already feel. A young boy, bursting with potential, innocent and confused, wipes bloody ash from his face. This is the fruit of war.

Overwhelmed, our tender heartstrings are plucked- like a tearful harp. Notes of sorrow resound. This is empathy.

Empathy is not sympathy. Empathy is more than seeing grief, acknowledging it and attempting to comfort, to restore. It is not pity, it is not even sorrow. Empathy is tearing.  

Empathy is an irrational anguish towards injustice. When we hear the inconsolable cry of a mother, robbed of her life’s treasure, as a child, ravaged with cancer, is meaninglessly laid to rest. When our bones scream with a confused anguish towards all this wrong; when this essence of who we are moans for a grief that is not our own. When has your heart stopped beating? When has time stood still?

The Jews know empathy.“Sitting Shiva” is a vivid example. “Weeping aloud they tore their robes and sprinkled dust on their heads. Then they sat there with him on the ground for seven days and seven nights. No one spoke a word…” [from Job 3:12] Throughout the seven day tradition of grief not a single word is spoken. No utterance of pity, no consoling sentiment. They sit together and grieve as one. This is empathy.

Jesus changes one’s view of empathy. Jesus did not feel for us, he felt us.

The same hands that molded galaxies, moved with love, touched the leper’s brow. His heart went out to all: the blind, the deaf, the lame, the pharisee, the tax collectors, the prostitutes and sinners, the woman at the well, the rich, the poor. He felt them, he was moved by them.  He felt the ache of hunger, the weariness of the traveller, the confusion of the refugee; he was the man of sorrows, familiar with suffering.  He felt the warmth of welcome, and the bitterness of rejection. He took our transgressions and bore our infirmities. He was crushed. He was bruised. He was ultimately betrayed. He died.

And in Jesus’ glorious victory few words ring truer: “For we have not an high priest which cannot be touched with the feeling of our infirmities; but was in all points tempted as we are,and yet was without sin…  Let us therefore come boldly unto the throne of grace, that we may obtain mercy, and find grace to help in time of need.  

So when tragedy clouds joy don’t just feel bad. Feel. And remember, Christ felt it first.

Hans HolznerComment