Empathy?

Here in Spain, the little ones are getting their first taste of this different and unsettling world outside of their home. Four days ago was the first time kids have been allowed outside since coronavirus hit the second week of March.

I’m trying to imagine what an 8-year-old thinks when they’re face-to-face with this for the first time: everyone in face masks, no friends to play with, empty streets, and forbidden playgrounds.

I didn’t have to imagine too long before I got a glimpse of what it might be like for them. On my walk home from the grocery store, I passed a mom with her daughter scooting along on a scooter. When the girl saw me, she hopped off her scooter, whimpered, and grabbed onto her mom’s leg. She could see only my eyes and not the smile I gave her. It must all be so strange and scary for the little ones. It was for me the first couple of weeks, too! I wanted to say to that little scooting girl “I understand! I know what it feels like to see all of this for the first time!”

I’ve been thinking about empathy.

It would seem that we should all have more empathy than ever now, right? Since almost no country is untouched, we are all living through coronavirus and quarantine and we can empathize; we can understand what each other is going through.

We say “I know what you mean…” and launch into how we totally get it because, of course, we are being affected by coronavirus, too.

We understand. Or at least we think we do, and I think that’s the problem.

True, we are all living under the effects of this crazy pandemic. But I think we are empathizing with others when we really have no way of understanding what they’re actually going through.

All of our lives are being dramatically affected by the same virus, but the way it plays out in each of our individual lives is radically different. We can’t even begin to compare one story to another. We can’t empathize as much as we think we can.

Some are working like crazy, others are suddenly jobless. Some are on lockdown, others are social distancing. Some have mental health challenges, others have physical challenges. Some have cancelled weddings, others have cancelled trips. Some have lost loved ones, others have been untouched. Some are barely coping emotionally, others are trucking right along.

I could go on, but you get the point.

We are all living through coronavirus but our lives are quite different and our hurts and struggles are as well. Let’s not pretend they’re very similar.

Less “I know, me too!” and “I know exactly how you feel.”

More “Wow, I’m so sorry, that stinks” and “Tell me what this is like for you.”

Loneliness

it was run-of-the-mill loneliness. Nothing that other people don’t experience now and then, I guess. What do I know? I can’t feel other people’s feelings.

Either way, it was real, weighty, and it was mine to feel. No one else could feel it or take it or fix it. Where should I heave the weight of it?

My friend’s confused response made sense when I thought back about what I had said: “I feel lonely. I need some alone time.”

As I sat there slumping, thinking about what I needed, feeling the ache of aloneness, I tried to pull myself out of it. I took mental stock of the wonderful people in my life. I also reminded myself that this too would pass. But the loneliness was there, despite the true reminders of all the good in my life. And I had to decide what to do.

I wanted to cut the loneliness and ease the ache. But I knew that the people I could bring around me would only mask the ache for a time.

It’s not that I don’t need people in my life. I do (we all do). Sometimes we need someone to shake us out of a slump and get us out of the house. Sometimes the best thing we can do is awkwardly call on someone to enter into our pain with us rather than sit alone in our spiraling darkness. But this wasn’t the time for that and somehow I knew it.

My loneliness was no sickness that needed to be cured. I just needed to sit alone in the school of loneliness, even if it was uncomfortable or sad.

In his new book, Andrew Peterson talks being alone and meeting God: “The loneliness of the dark field was a prerequisite for the company I felt.”

The aloneness ushered in the company of Christ, our brother and King.

Elizabeth Elliot, no stranger to loss and loneliness said, “Loneliness is a wilderness, but through receiving it as a gift, accepting it from the hand of God, and offering it back to Him with thanksgiving, it may become a pathway to holiness, to glory and to God himself.”

I will not mope and moan, stunting my growth, but I won’t hastily look for a quick fix for loneliness. I won’t let it conquer me, nor will I run from it.

So, for that evening, I sat alone in the loneliness of my own dark field and sought Divine company — to which I have astounding access through Christ! — or no company at all.