Monday, July 26, 2010

The Empathy of Identification

“Though being God,
the Father’s Word took on our human being,
To mingle it with God, and be little amongst earthlings.”
(St. Gregory of Nazianzus, c. 320-390 A.D.)

Under the circumstances, I suppose it’s not strange that people frequently ask me ‘how I’m doing.’

“How are you?” an acquaintance inquires.

“How are you?” someone a bit closer might ask.

“How are you?” a friend probes, trying to peak beneath the mask.

I never know quite how to answer that question.

I usually manage something completely inane like, “Oh, I’m hanging in there. How are you? The kids good?” Deflection is always a wonderful diversionary technique.

How can I possibly say how I’m doing? I don’t even know the answer to that question.

It varies moment to moment, anyway.  I’m all over the board.

Besides, there’s a world of difference between how I am (“seated in the heavenlies…”) and how I feel.

In actuality, I think the question refers mostly to the latter.

I was mulling this over the other day, after an unusually rash number of inquiries into my (mental?) state.

How can I possibly explain how I feel, where I am, how I’m “doing?”

This is what I felt like saying:

“How would you dofeelbe…  if it were your precious first-born child, child of your heart, your pride and joy? What if this had happened to ________? *” (*Insert name of your own first-born. If you don’t have one, insert name of your most precious loved one.)

Really. Try it.

Close your eyes.


Say the name.

________?  in the wheelchair…  ________? struggling with a walker…  her unable to get out of a bathtub by herself, pick up her own child… him unable to drive, go on a walk with the family, take care of himself… her with a paralyzed face, a distorted voice, an injured eye… him sitting there alone in a quiet room.

How would you feel if every foray into public were accompanied by stares of shock and morbid curiosity instead of looks of admiration or approval?

Having created this little mental exercise for the benefit of others, I immediately employed it myself:

Kim, how would you feel if you were Cheri?  What if it were Amie, your second child, the laughter of your family… who sat immobilized in a wheelchair, paralyzed from the neck down?

Or what if Amie had been born with Down’s syndrome, like Marianne’s second child? What would your life be like? How would you feel?

What if Grace, your precious little caboose, had been born with a brain abnormality, like the third-born of Katherine’s sweet friend Hillary

What if your firstborn Katherine, because of human error, had never received the gift of speech… like Abby’s daughter? What if she had never been able to take care of herself, and short of a miracle, never would? How would you feel if you were Abby?

Can you even begin to imagine how those mothers are “doing” on a daily basis? How would you be doing in their situations?

(I won’t go to the place of contemplating the state of the mothers who have lost their children today… that deserves a separate rumination.)

This exercise has been helpful for me in several ways.

I have prayed to become more truly compassionate. To develop greater empathy for those who are hurting.

Empathy is much more intense… more real… when it is personalized.

Closer to home.

…when there is identification.  Not just generic sympathy for a sad story, but an intimate compassion. When our hearts break for each other. When we enter into each other’s pain and share it… help bear it.

I realize that no matter how sincere the effort, no human being can ever completely understand what it feels like to be in another’s skin. To get behind the obscuring opacity of eyes. To penetrate the wall of unarticulated inner fears and pain and longing.

We cannot get inside each other. We cannot become each other.

Ultimately, we must bear our intrinsic aloneness and alienation from others as a cross until the day when we will know as we are known.

But in spite of the limits imposed by human nature, I’ve found that exercising this spiritual discipline of identification is a valuable tool in developing the kind of empathy that leads to more productive, vital prayer.

Because it is a very pale shadow of the reality of what Christ has done for us.


“He became as we were, to the end that we might become as he is now. He became one with us in death, that we might become one with him in life…”
E. W. Kenyon

“Because God’s children are human beings—made of flesh and blood—the Son also became flesh and blood. For only as a human being could he die, and only by dying could he break the power… of death. Only in this way could he set free all who have lived their lives as slaves to the fear of dying…
 Therefore, it was necessary for him to be made in every respect like us, his brothers and sisters, so that he could be our merciful and faithful High Priest before God... Since he himself has gone through suffering and testing, he is able to help us when we are being tested.” (Hebrews 2, nlt)

“…For we do not have a High Priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are—yet was without sin.” (Hebrew 4:15, niv)

“And this is the secret: Christ lives in you.” (Colossians 1:27b, nlt)

“Remain in me, and I will remain in you.” (John 15:4)


Please… don’t anyone take this the wrong way. Everyone who has asked “how I’m doing” has done it out of love, concern, or caring. I receive it that way.

This piece is more about the inadequacy of human beings in truly being able to express what is inside of us, and to understand what is in the hearts of others. And the realization that if no one else on earth can possibly understand how we feel, there is One who can and does. And his compassion is greater than anything we can imagine.

What are your thoughts on this?


Katie said...

Wow. This is intense. There is so much pain in the world that it's easy to become desensitized. This "exercise" makes things more real.

Thanks for sharing.

flipped out said...

I am so thankful for you! Eight years ago I lost the love and any relationship with my darling much loved daughters because of a very painful divorce after 30 years of marriage. I have two grandchildren I have never seen. There are no words to express the pain. Thank you for reminding me today, an especially hard day, that God knows each little tear, every pain and is with me. He knows what I am feeling even if I can't put it into words.

Please keep writing! You are amazing.

Madison Sanders said...

I loved this post. People ask how I'm doing, but as you said, they don't really want to know how I'm doing. Most people become uncomfortable when you really tell them how things are. Today's society has become so detached from feeling things. People distance themselves from hard situations because they can't deal with the reality.

Thank you for posting this. People would look at things a lot differently if they inserted their own name into those blanks. I always give a positive answer because inspite of it all, God's promises to me and about me haven't changed.

Amy said...

This blows me away.

I don't even know how to respond, other than to say that this helps me to feel your pain, and the pain of others I care about, in a deeper way.

ANd it helps me to get through my own problems knowing that God understands, even if no one else does.

Thank you.

Anonymous said...

This really touched me Kim. I remember, so well, that some people were so nucomfortable with "the accident" that they would avoid me. It was like we were living everyone's worst nightmare. There is so much pain in the world, too many sad "nightmare" stories. I think we would all just spontaneously combust if we even came close to comprehending so much suffering. My God is greater than all the pain all the tears.


The Retarded Mother said...

I love you. Period.
I love it that you open my eyes even wider and with more compassion than I thought I already had. Carry on, dear woman/mother. You are a vessel--as are we each and all. You're just brave enough to open the lid of your vessel canister. My love. My thanks. My encouragement. You are precious to thousands of us "out here." Isn't it so neat how the mission field is almost always without walls? Marianne

tatiana said...

You are AMAZING!

Donna said...

Oh, thank you Jesus for Kim. She has helped us to open our eyes and understand how to deal with each other's pain.

Anonymous said...

What? You too? () It's so nice to hear you reference what is so often in my mind. And I have to admit that I do giggle a bit when certain people act almost as if my life just might be contagious. I am volunteering at a different church this week and I cannot tell you how absolutely lovely it is to be almost completely unknown. This is my life, my story--but it doesn't define me. Not really. It's just another way to learn to trust God in the horrendous and take joy in ALL things. I love you Kim. You are an amazing woman. I hope we live on the same street on the other side!!

Cheri said...

I think it all has to do with brokenness. People can't recognize ours until they recognize theirs. We are all broken. Most people just hide it or deny it. For some of us, that's not an option. Who wants to admit they're broken when no one knows it? Who wants to admit they are depressed or scared to death someone is going to see how insecure they really are? What mother wants to admit that their child is mean and nasty and selfish? A huge disappointment. Who wants to admit that after many, many years their marriage is a sham? Who wants to admit they have an addiction that they can keep secret. Before Ethan was hurt, I never wanted to admit I was broken. I fooled myself into thinking everyone was just like me, running around trying to be accepted, included, living up to everyone's expectations. Trying desperately to be loved. That was as broken of a life as the one I am living now. I guess for us who can't hide it, we could call it a "Ministry of Brokenness." Our brokenness can be used to help others. We can be a safe place for others to come out of their hiding and denial. To learn to trust God with what has broken them. It's God redeeming what went wrong. It's Him making it right.

Until people have experienced The Healer, they don't want to share our pain. It's too scary. Too overwhelming. Too hopeless. But.. . we know better!

Anonymous said...

Dear One,
You have taken us with you on this journey through heart wrenching truthfulness. I would love to be able to sit with you and learn. Your posts help but until someone goes through the kind of sadness you and Katherine and your families have, we cannot possibly relate. We would like to support but can't somehow. We just pray that when sadness comes, and it will, we may have the courage to look to Jesus as you have. You have been a blessed conduit of His grace. May He be your strength each and every day.

Erika said...
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Erika said...
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Erika said...
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Erika said...


this comment is in response to an earlier post- i was on vacation and somehow missed your post on about james' eating habits- and was just reading through the archives and read it for the first time tonight.

i have a "very picky eater" too- my almost 4 year old. it's taken awhile for me to realize that it's a problem- and one that isn't going to go away on its own.

over the past two months i have done extensive research and reading (and talking to professionals) about it, and it turns out that what my daughter has is a form of sensory processing disorder (also called sensory integration disorder). it doesn't mean that anything is "wrong" with her- just that some experiences (such as eating) are overwhelming to her.

one of the ways we're expanding her diet is through food chaining. there are a few books written on the subject- and it's something that Occupational Therapists know how to implement.

I never realized she had an issue until my youngest was born (and she will eat ANYTHING)- it was just...kind of an "aha" moment when i saw how my youngest eats. then we went on vacation and the "safe" foods for my daughter were not available (she has certain brands- all trader joe's that she eats- and there is no trader joe's in maine, where we were staying).

long story short- if you find that james' diet is not improving on its own, it is something to look into.

i have found that so many things have changed for the better since i realized that my daughter has a difficult time with some sensory stimuli/inputs- she now has fewer tantrums, meltdowns, and we all have an overall more pleasant time of things. we have made some small changes and found huge improvements.

some of the books i have read are:

food chaining: the proven 6 step plan to stop picky eating, solve feeding problems, and expand your child's diet (fraker)

growing an in sync child (kranowitz)

raising a sensory smart child (biel)

the out of sync child (miller)

sensory processing disorder answer book (delaney)

sorry for the novel- i hope this helps. i hope that james' eating habits are improved with something like the jessica seinfeld book. for us, her book (and the sneaky chef book) were not useful because our daughter won't even eat the so called "kid" foods she hides the good stuff in...

love reading your blog... :-)


Erika said...
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Kim said...

Thank you all for these compassionate, beautiful, uplifting responses to this post. I didn't know how people would take it. I appreciate the encouragement. I am praying for each hurt mentioned. I love you all!

And Erika, thank you so much for the recommendations. He's getting even worse! I'll order one of the books.

xoxo, KIm