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Bruce, Caroline

When Empathy Hurts

NOTE: The following is going to have some religious overtones. If this
makes you uncomfortable, you'll want to move on to the next message.

It's not often that I envy the stereotypical guys, the guys who do
nothing but guzzle beer, belch, and push each other around the room in
wrestling matches, and are impervious to the feelings of others. There
are some aspects of insensitivity which I find to be refreshingly
appealing.

Right now, at this stage in my life, many people are hurting. This hurt
takes on about as many forms as there are people: it might be financial
pain, emotional/psychological pain, physical pain, the pain that comes
from mistreatment by others, some combination of these, or all of these.
I'm seeing the reality of this hurting so starkly now, and it seems to
get starker by the day.

Yet through it all, there is one quality of the stereotypical guy that I
do have: you see something broken, you're genetically inclined to fix
it. When you suffer from empathy, this desire to fix the broken doesn't
limit itself to hinges, electrical devices and plugged toilets, you want
to fix the broken lives of the people you love. But plungers, wrenches
and power tools only work for inanimate objects, they don't work on
humans. The result? One is left with an inherent desire, an inherent
need, to achieve the unachievable, to do the impossible, to fix
lives. It can't be done. Only one person can fix lives, and I'm not Him,
not by a longshot.

So what do I do when I'm brought down by the struggles of those I love?
I could isolate myself, sure. Except for one thing: I love these people.
I could pretend not to care, that smoke screen might work for a second
or two, but anyone who knows me would see through that in no time. I
guess there's alcohol: if you can't turn off the senses, numb them. I
know this is the approach taken by many sensitive people throughout
history. But I don't drink and I have no desire to, so that's out.
Besides, it'd just be another smoke screen, and I'm not a fan of smoke
screens.

As much as I love and believe in God, I honestly don't understand Him.
There's so much about Him that makes absolutely no sense to me
whatsoever. Why He made me the way He did is one of these things that I
just don't get. One the one hand I am so very, very imperfect, so
above-average in my proneness to stupid mistakes and displays of
ineptitude. Yet on the other hand, I've got this incredible yearning for
perfection, a whole truckload of good intentions, and we all know what
good intentions pave. What am I, this most imperfect of people, supposed
to do with this desire to be superhuman? What do I do when I feel the
hurts around me like so many spears in my own heart?

I wish God would explain all of this to me. I wish I could either
achieve the superhumanity I yearn (and that'll never happen on this
earth) or else have this sensitivity to the feelings of others taken
away from me, which, I suspect, also isn't in the cards.

I remember Paul Harvey saying one time that if he, as a news reporter,
were to cry for everything that came across his desk worthy of tears, he
would spend all of his time crying and not reporting. There are some
businesses where you have to detach yourself: no doubt doctors and
lawyers feel this as well.

But do I want people to mask their pain from me? No, I don't want that
either. That would be another one of those smoke screens I don't like,
wouldn't it? I'm about honesty, or at least I try to be. Christ said,
"Let your yes be yes, and your no be no." That means something to me,
and I try to live my life by that. I don't want people to hide
their pain from me. I just need to learn, and it's entirely up to me,
how to handle being who and what I am.

Comments

(Anonymous)

When Empathy Hurts

Very good piece, Bruce. I'd just like to say, I don't know why God made any of us the way he did. We'll know when we see Him in heaven. But, until then, I think we need to simply trust that He's God and knows what he's doing. Think of it this way, if you weren't the person you are, you would never encounter the people who are such a big part of your life, and you would never touch the lives you have. Your personality, sense of humor, singing and thoughtful and insightful writings touch people and they do make a difference. To not have Bruce, as you are, would leave a huge hole in many lives and we would be the worse for it.

Cindy
This post is absolutely beautifully written, and I can relate. I run into this in many situations where I care so much and can do so little. It drove me to do things that were not good. You have a really healthy awareness of it, which is good, even though I do understand that it hurts.

Remember that there are lots of times when we won't know the impact of our actions, but they do make a difference. You have and continue to make a difference.

One last thing, it's okay to set boundaries, to say "I can't talk about this right now". It doesn't make you less of a friend!

If you ever want to talk, you know I'm here.

Hugs...
This is a hard thing, and I've dealt with similar feelings. I wanted to share my favorite quote in the hope that it might help. I first saw it attributed to Edward Everett Hale, a minister in, I believe the 1800's. I've since seen it attributed to someone else, but I can't remember who. It says:
"I am only one,
but still I am one.
I can not do everything,
but still, I can do something.
And since I can not do everything,
I will not refuse to do the something that I can do."