Do You Know How Bad It Hurts?

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“When we honestly ask ourselves which person in our lives mean the most to us, we often find that it is those who, instead of giving advice, solutions, or cures, have chosen rather to share our pain and touch our wounds with a warm and tender hand. The friend who can be silent with us in a moment of despair or confusion, who can stay with us in an hour of grief and bereavement, who can tolerate not knowing, not curing, not healing and face with us the reality of our powerlessness, that is a friend who cares.” ― Henri Nouwen

There’s something called Social Suffering. This happens when we hurt because of the larger consequences of human actions – like a global pandemic, an invasion of your country or a school shooting. These big events, caused by people, can bring catastrophic disaster into individual lives. It’s a kind of suffering that can be easy to understand. Empathy within reach because most of us can imagine the experience.

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But there are other life circumstances that can be more difficult. In my class with college students, it’s always a challenge to deepen their understanding because of their age-related lack of experience. We are finishing up a class on childhood. Raising children gives you a whole layer of empathy. Can you imagine what it must be like for my criminology class? None have committed any crimes (I hope) and very few have been victimized. Mostly an abstract field of study for them. They don’t watch the news, so it’s even more of an abstraction!

“We must learn to regard people less in the light of what they do or omit to do, and more in the light of what they suffer.”  ― Dietrich Bonhoeffer

Have you ever heard of the concept known as an Empathy Gap? It’s another one of those biases in our thinking. This term describes why it can be difficult to really understand from someone else’s perspective and thereby feel with them. Empathy helps us to walk alongside others during extraordinary times. Maybe it’s not because you don’t know how to feel, but because you’ve got a load of feelings in the other direction?

An Empathy Gap can happen when our own experience is at the other end of the emotional spectrum. At work, I’ve just been given a long-awaited promotion and I’m feeling on top of the world. While walking out to the parking lot, I hear that one of my friends has been fired. I may find it difficult to empathize, not because I’m uncaring, but because my own thinking and feeling is at the moment so different. When friends are excited and extra happy and I’m feeling lonely or despondent – the same thing can happen. A gap that prevents an empathy connection.

“Every man has his secret sorrows which the world knows not; and often times we call a man cold when he is only sad.” ― Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

My point here is that sometimes it may seem as if no one understands, but really what might be happening is that others have their own secret burdens that limit empathy. Children murdered at school in Nashville, a long battle with depression, the tornado wiped out the whole town, my friends wife just walked out on he and their three children…do you feel like you don’t have room inside to feel “alongside” people in these situations? Maybe your current place in life has produced an empathy gap. Maybe your own top of the mountain or bottom of the barrel experiences have made it harder to feel.

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We learned about Jonah and the big fish on Sunday. I wish I was the kind of friend who would have sat with him in that stinking fish for three days and just listened to his self-pity, no speeches or over-confident advice. Maybe all he really needed was someone to hear him voice all his fears and frustrations? Sometimes, the best way to heal is to just talk and be heard.

The next time your friend seems out of sorts, give a gift of some time and your undivided attention.

“Loneliness does not come from having no people about one, but from being unable to communicate the things that seem important to oneself, or from holding certain views which others find inadmissible.”  – Carl Jung

9 thoughts on “Do You Know How Bad It Hurts?

  1. We are so quick to fix, rather than listen. It’s the instinct we need to undo. I’m praying God surrounds you with better listeners too.


  2. Could a greater miracle take place than for us to look through each other’s eye for an instant? – Henry David Thoreau


  3. Well I needed this one today. Thank you for writing in the midst of your tribulation. I find when we take our eyes of our own situation and live to help those around us, our problems become smaller somehow. God may we live for those hurting around and right in front of us.

    I’m praying for you.


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