I saw it. Perhaps you saw it too. In your Facebook News Feed and posted on various news sites, we saw this headline:
“Mother shares heartbreaking final moments of 4-year-old’s battle with cancer”
Along with this headline was a heart shattering photo of this little boy lying on a bathroom rug while his mother took a shower because he wanted to be near to her. Did you click on it? Were you able to handle reading the story? I didn’t click on it. I didn’t simply and honestly because I couldn’t bear the sorrow. In fact, I won’t even link to the story here. If you missed it and want to read it, you can do a simple Google search. The story is still out there. I purposed in my heart that I would not read it. It was too much for me. As I scrolled past this story, my heart cried out to this mother, “I’m so sorry this happened to you, but I can’t bear to read your words right now. I’m too weak and full of my own sorrow to bear yours too.” Though I couldn’t read the story, I did pray for her. It was all I could do.
This mother posted her story on her Facebook page, and then through the power of social media it was shared and shared and shared to the masses. Though I don’t know the full background of this story, I’d like to believe that she didn’t mean to expose the photo of her precious son to the world. She just wanted to share her heart with those closest to her, but they shared it until the story went viral, and strangers like me have to grapple with how to respond.
We are told we need to show empathy, but is empathy a healthy response? In an article on the Psychology Today website that explains the difference between sympathy and empathy, the author expounds on four terms:
- pity: I acknowledge your suffering
- sympathy: I care about your suffering
- empathy: I feel your suffering
- compassion: I want to relieve your suffering
It seems to me that in our culture, empathy is elevated as the ideal response to human suffering. People who lack empathy are seen as villains. I Googled, “is empathy healthy,” and found this article: Five Reasons You Should Be Less Empathetic. I especially appreciated the #4 and #5 reasons:
- #4: Empathy is emotionally exhausting (but compassion is not)
- #5: People in pain don’t want you to feel their pain; they want you to be there for them
Empathy is emotionally exhausting and overwhelming. When I am exhausted and overwhelmed, I am not in a place where I can be with someone who is in pain. It occurred to me that I cannot pull someone out of a pit by getting into the pit with them. That would compound the problem. In order to help someone, I need to be strong and healthy. I need to have sure footing, a firm grasp, and patient persistence to hold onto them while they climb out themselves. I personally think that empathy serves its purpose in alerting me to people’s needs, but sympathy and compassion allow for me to actively aid those in need and still protect my mental health. People in professions who care for people who are facing their most difficult times: doctors, nurses, clergy, counselors, etc. are trained in how to work with people in crisis. They learn that self-care and boundaries are vital and a priority so they can stay on higher ground while lifting people up. I haven’t had that kind of training.
People in crisis don’t want you to fix them. They want you to be there. They want you to listen to them and acknowledge their pain. They don’t need you to have the perfect thing to say. In fact, saying nothing is usually the wisest thing to say. I think about the Biblical account of Job. Job suffered incredible pain and loss. His three closest friends heard about his troubles and traveled a great distance to comfort and console Job.
“When three of Job’s friends heard of the tragedy he had suffered, they got together and traveled from their homes to comfort and console him…When they saw Job from a distance, they scarcely recognized him. Wailing loudly, they tore their robes and threw dust into the air over their heads to show their grief. Then they sat on the ground with him for seven days and nights. No one said a word to Job, for they saw that his suffering was too great for words.” Job 3:11-13
Then someone talked, and things got messy.
Through the past few weeks I feel like I’ve been in a wrestling match with anger, bitterness, and sorrow. It’s like they are heavy weights on a barbell that I am struggling to bench press off of my heart. That’s why I made the conscious decision to bypass the article about the little boy. I knew if I read it my heart would be crushed. This is the Scripture I was meditating on:
“Guard your heart above all else, for it determines the course of your life.” Proverbs 4:23
The word “guard” here does not mean to lock up your heart, but more of a sense of put a watchman on guard around your heart, and to be aware of what you allow in. The next few verses in Proverbs give suggestions about how to guard/watch for anything corrupt that could damage your heart:
“Avoid all perverse talk; stay away from corrupt speech [be careful what you listen to], and fix your eyes on what lies before you [be careful what you look at/watch]. Mark out a straight path for your feet; and stay on the safe path. Don’t get sidetracked; keep your feet from following evil [live your life, carry the burdens that are yours to carry, stay away from things that would tempt you to sin]. Proverbs 4:24-27 (brackets mine)
All of this comes down to the fact that if I am to be of any good to someone who is going through painful circumstances then I need to be in a healthy place where I can see and think and speak clearly. Jesus addressed this in His Sermon on the Mount.
“Any why worry about a speck in your friend’s eye when you have a log in your own? How can you think of saying to your friend, ‘Let me help you get rid of that speck in your eye,’ when you can’t see past the log in your own eye? Hypocrite! First get rid of the log in your own eye; then you will see well enough to deal with the speck in your friend’s eye.” Matthew 7:3-5
Take care of yourself. Set up healthy boundaries. Know your limitations. Be careful what you listen to. Be careful what you say. Be careful what you look at. Remove the log. Guard your heart.