The Christian Burden of Empathy
A Christmas Essay
“Consider the sweet, tender children
Who must suffer on this earth.”
“Take my yoke upon you, and learn of me; for I am meek and lowly in heart: and ye shall find rest unto your souls.” — Matthew 11:29
I met B——— the first week at our church in Spain. My wife and I had moved there for the year, and though I spoke Spanish, my wife didn’t, so B——— (who spoke English) became a fast friend. He told us he moved from Africa to Spain more than nine years before, that he loved Spain, it had become his home. His accent was thick, and sweet, and inversely gave us a feeling of home, connection and belonging. Many weeks later, he stood before our congregation and shared his beliefs and testimony of Jesus Christ. His eyes gleaned with Ghanian light as he spoke: “We must have faith, brothers and sisters. It is faith in God that will lead us to peace, both internal and external. It is faith in God that will lead us to our individual promised lands and will alleviate our burdens. And only in Christ is this possible.”
The simplicity of his words and the sincerity of his timbre touched my heart, and made me feel that he spoke in truth. After the meeting, I spoke with the congregational leader about him. Our leader, a man from Ecuador, told me: “we found him a few years ago on the street, here in Galicia, in plain winter rains and cold. He sat under a limp tarp, wet, with hardly any clothes. No food for who knows how long. We found him there, got him some food and a place to stay for a month or two to help him get up on his feet. I cried when I saw him. I never cry. I wept. He still doesn’t have much, but he finally was able to bring his wife here with him after some eight or nine years, and, for now, they have enough.” Tears formed in my eyes as he spoke, and my heart sunk heavy into my chest.
A few months later, I took my family to the Canary Islands in celebration of my wife’s birthday. We stayed at an Airbnb with a small terrace which overlooked the night crowds that wandered and shopped at Playa de las Americas. Every night, as my wife and I sat on the terrace, we would see an old Indian man with a snow-white beard (probably in his 80’s) selling toys on a street corner. He would launch a flying toy up into the air that glowed with colorful light as it floated down. He would sling-shot the toys especially high when little boys and girls passed by with their parents. We watched him—a foreign man in a foreign place—trade and fight off bartering tourists, always firm to his fixed 5 euro price reflected in the humanity of his hands. When he collected a rare sale, he would carefully draw out a money bag from the inside of his shirt and account for every cent he earned, slowly and methodically—as though holding rare tokens that gave him at least one more day to live.
We didn’t know him, and never will. Yet, as we watched him, my wife and I developed (dare I say) a sense of love for this man. We wondered who he was, if he was alone, if he had family with him. I wondered if his circumstances weren’t that far from B———’s, a man looking for a better life away from his home. Eventually, I began to look at this Indian man (as I did with B———) with empathy. In a sense, he began to represent (for me) the millions of people on earth who suffer in the present tense of the day-to-day; the millions who, day after day, walk against the wind just to find a way to eat; those who live on the streets without clothes, without food, and no shelter from the cold; the millions of women who sit at home in their old age, either widowed or never married, and breathe in the lonesome nearness of death; the millions of children who grow hungry, suffer the injustices of evil parenting, of war or plague, and are robbed, at far too young an age, of life. I thought of these things to the point of overwhelming, wondering what is one to do in the face of the immense reality of universal suffering? Because for every moment one enjoys life on the beaches of the Canary Islands, there are 100 others who suffer, and a thousand others who could use the money you or I enjoy to simply continue living. For every successful move you or I make to another city, another state, another country, integrating quickly, comfortably and with room to spare, there is another who flees his or her city, state, or country, running from war or familial violence, with only the thin etherial strands of hope to grasp for survival.
What is to be done when I have more than anther, and another more than I? What is to be done of the natural injustices of life and living we all experience at different intervals in time (some more than others)? What am I to do when I live with the B———s of the world in the comfortable reality of my own family and living conditions (warm, and with food to spare)? What am I to do when I see the old Indian men of the world struggle, night after night, to earn some daily bread, as I watch from the comfort of my Airbnb?
These questions/experiences plague the believer, and constitute what I call the Christian burden of empathy: the paradox of being infinitely blessed by faith in Christ, and infinitely cursed at knowing/coming to love (as does Christ) those who suffer all around you. To follow Christ is to draw near to God and reap the blessings of the infinite; yet, simultaneously, we are to remember “the least of these,” and remain with and within the finitude of the world. I have felt this myself—the closer I grow to Christ, the more I am blessed and enriched in my personal and familial life; at the same time, as I come to Christ, I also meet and come to love the B———s of the world and learn of the many daily difficulties they face. The more I am with Christ, the more I am with those who seek refuge in His grace and mercy, and those lived realities form stories that burn the heart with melancholy.
Christ lived this burden His entire life. He condescended from the highest and holiest places only to be born in the cold of a stable, wrapped in a poor man’s cloth to sleep in a trough for fodder. Throughout His life, He constantly sought refuge from the mundane, to return to those holy and high places in private prayer with His Father, away from the world, always to be brought back to the dirt of those who need healing. Christ constantly longed for peace and oneness with His Father, but He never shrank from His duty as Savior and Redeemer of the lost and the lonely. Christ, above all, ultimately became the great empathizer, the perfect empathizer. In a eucharistic transformation, the sufferer’s burden—my burden, and yours—became His. He took upon Himself the suffering of all of God’s children, empathizing, both physically and metaphysically, beyond what we can understand as our suffering literally became His. Christ drank the bitter cup, He did not shrink or think to just pay the price in dollars or euros; and in so doing, we became His.
Christ taught His disciples: “[If] any man will come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow me. For whosoever will save his life shall lose it: and whosever will lose his life for my sake shall find it. For what is a man profited, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul? or what shall a man give in exchange for his soul?” (Matt 16:24–26). Here, Christ teaches (as the one who subsumed the Christian burden of empathy whole in His Atonement) that the antidote to suffering is gratitude; the antidote to ignorance is faith. You must lose yourself to find yourself, and give of yourself to have something to give. Christ teaches that yes, “in the world [we] shall have tribulation,” even the burden of Christian empathy; but he also commanded to “be of good cheer; I have overcome the world” (John 16:31, emphasis mine).
Christ doesn’t teach us to be of good cheer because we have overcome the world, because we fixed someone else’s problems, or because we paid for someone’s life. No. We are to be of good cheer precisely because we cannot overcome the world, we cannot pay for someone’s life; that is, we cannot overcome the world on our own. I do not believe that my simply giving money (however large or infinite a sum) to those who suffer would be enough (though it’s certainly a start if I am doing nothing else; and, I must say, I should more seriously consider giving all that I have to “the least of these”). Nor do I believe that anyone should feel guilty for taking a vacation with their loved ones, forming meaningful memories within family that come in no other way.
So what is one to do in the face of the burden of Christian empathy? There is no amount of money, self-deprivation, or sacrifice on behalf of another that will fix either your own suffering or that of another (sorry to say that even for only $69.99/year, you still won’t be able to purchase internal peace or calmness). There is only one solution: come unto Christ yourself, then bring others to Him. In fact, when we do this, the burden of empathy ceases to exist, and we are left with real progress both personally and locally. Christ taught: “Come unto me, all ye that labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest” (Matt 11:28). Only in Christ will anyone—me, you, B———, or even the Indian man—find relief from suffering and the burdens of life.
If you suffer, or suffer for someone else you love, I invite you to watch this Christmas video of the birth of Christ (click this link). As you watch, I hope that you may feel the same awe as does the Wiseman-King who made the sacrifice of money, time, and energy to find both the Christ child and “rest unto [his] soul.”
This Christmas season, as the world of consumerism blows its brassy horn and chimes the bells of purchase, remember the B———s of your world, the old Indian men, “the least of these,” and bring them to Christ; bring yourself to Christ. Find solace in the babe born of Mary, who came to the world—in circumstances of the humble—to sooth the pains of life and lift us all from the stains of the grave. It is my prayer that your suffering, and the suffering of those you love—those for whom you bear the Christian burden of empathy—may be lighter this December in Christ.
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