Empathy is Painful

My wife had been speaking to me for a few minutes, and what she was describing filled me with nervous energy.  I had started with lots of eye contact, and I wanted to hear her.  But after a few moments I suddenly felt the need to listen while also doing something else.  Anything else.   Suddenly, the cords peeking out from behind the TV needed me to press them back into formation.  The pillow that had fallen off the bed needed me to put it back.  And needed me to fluff it.  The shoes on the floor needed me to move them to the closet, and a nearby shirt needed me to hang it while I was there. I was listening, but I wasn’t wanting too.  I couldn’t stand to hear how much pain she was in. I was subconsciously trying to be empathetic and escape at the same time.

I love my wife dearly, but this sometimes translates into being pained in my heart when I slow down enough to be fully present and contemplate the very serious and sometimes life-threatening ailments that have been a part of our life the past several years.  Her illnesses drain her physically and emotionally, and when you love someone…their real pain is often your real pain.  Hers is physical, but mine is in my heart.  And my heart breaks again, and again for her.  So though I wanted to hear her discuss what was very real and hard for her to be experiencing, I was also foolishly trying to protect myself from totally feeling it with her. It was an unplanned and ultimately failed attempt at a sort of guarded hybrid empathy.  It sounds stupid now but trust me, it made sense at the time.

After a few minutes she suddenly stopped talking for a few seconds, changed her tone, and passionately said “Do you understand how discouraged I am?”  There wasn’t judgement, though she could have also said that she wasn’t sure if I was really listening, or asked me to resume eye contact.  I stopped moving around, realizing that she probably felt like she was just talking to the wall.  I looked into her eyes again, and lovingly repeated back a quick summary of everything she had been sharing about the latest crisis her body was struggling through (I really was listening with my ears and heart, but it hadn’t looked like it!).

She thanked me.  I apologized for being busy while she spoke. And then I simply did the only other thing I could do at the moment, by giving her a gentle kiss and hug, and reminded her how sorry I am that she is in pain. I said, “I would take this pain from you if you could hand it over.”  She said, “I know.,” and there was a little more peace in her eyes despite the physical pain of her body.   At that point the conversation was over. We sat together silently for a few more moments.

Since I can’t take on my wife’s sickness for her, the next best thing I can do is to be compassionate and empathetic. I have not the gift of healing people like Christ did in his earthly ministry, but I can model the many times he lovingly took pity on the sick and needy around him. He was and is God, yet He modeled a tender heart, and spent much time with people that needed him fully present. He looked upon and felt their pain.  Of course, Jesus also took this to the next level in even taking on the burden of sin from those who trust him, by dying a guilty mans death on the cross.  Thankfully, death could not hold Him!

Practically, this means I can and should listen to Marque share about her serious ailments, even when it hurts my heart.  It means that I need to accept that my heart is going to hurt in her times of tender of sharing. It means I need to be fully present, looking in her eyes. Holding her hand. Sitting in times of silence when words will only agitate.  It means, I’m experiencing the “to have and to hold in sickness and in health” in a very personal and sometimes painful way.  To me, it also means that this regular experience is also one of the few times when I’m truly loving her and God with all that is within me.  Even when it hurts.






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