Wednesday, September 19, 2007

When Bad News Comes....

What do we do when bad news comes? Some people will start asking 'why?' and struggle with the dilemma: "Why will a good God allow such bad things to happen to good people?" Others will try their best to empathize, but at some point, the feeling of helplessness and hopelessness discourages many empathizers themselves. When that happens, empathy can degenerate into either social sympathy or apathy. Both are not good. In 'sympathy', one takes a distant approach when addressing the hurt. Sometimes it may lead to adopting a behaviour that is part of social nice-ness, an act or a mask to put up to make sure that we are in touch, yet keeping a 'safe' distance away. Of course, not all sympathy is bad. Edmund Burke praised sympathy, saying
“Next to love, sympathy is the divinest passion of the human heart.”
'Sympathy' or social-sympathy is often interpreted as simply a feeling FOR the other person, a unilateral discharge of emotional concern towards another. If sympathy moves towards pity, that will be a shame.

In the same light, if empathy leads to 'apathy', it will be even more tragic, as it shows a complete lack of emotional concern for the other. This happens frequently when we become aware that no matter what we do, we cannot salvage the situation. Apathy leads to intellectual nonchalance, assuming that the problem at best will go away. It is like the demotivated worker who assumes that apathy is a solution to keep people from bugging them.

Both social-sympathy and apathy, though they are better than antipathy (opposite of sympathy), sucks the humanness out of us. If sympathy is caring FOR the person, I will suggest that true empathy is caring WITH the person. It is one thing to do something for another person, but it is quite another to do it WITH the other person. In working actively with the victim, we are helping to be a listening ear, to sense the underlying emotions of the pains. we are given opportunities to empower the victim to lift themselves above any temptation to become stymied in self-pity. We are also learning to be a better care-giver, as a peer not a superior.

In Mark 6:53-55, I am struck by the commitment of the people to bring the sick towards wherever Jesus went. The gospels record:
When they got out of the boat, immediately the people recognized him, and ran about that whole country and began to carry here and there on their pallets those who were sick, to the place they heard He was. (Mark 6:54-55)
Such actions are no mere social-sympathy or distant apathy. It is empathy on the highest level. Having known Jesus's works in their hearts, they 'carried about diligently here and there' (periferein) which shares the same root word as 'always carrying about' the death of Jesus (2 Cor 4:10). In true Christian empathy, we have to adopt this habit of 'always carrying about' our cares and concern for others to Jesus.

Today I hear the news of a dear brother-in-Christ in constant pain, and another in dying pain. The former requires pain relievers while the latter is anticipating death. Both are dear brothers in Christ to me. "Take it to the Lord in prayer" is in my heart. I have my limits in empathizing with my two brothers in Christ. However, it is not up to me to say where and how the limits are. What I am called to do is to constantly 'carry here and there', prayers and love for them, to present them to Jesus. When bad news come, we ought to pray. We ought to be diligent in bringing our concerns before the Lord. We have to learn what it means to walk together with those in pain, in sickness and in health. Doing nice things is not enough. We need to learn to do nice things WITH them.


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