Standing at a Coles’ checkout, I listened to a cashier delivering news to the customer in front of me, the sad circumstances of a mutual friend. Taking it in, her head tilted, her mouth drooped, and her shoulders dropped. She responded with some words expressing her sadness on behalf of this individual.
After they’d briefly paused, the cashier directed her attention to me. I watched as the customer turned to walk away. In that same second her body realigned, and her face returned to neutral. It was clear that her mind’s attention had shifted elsewhere.
She looked like I felt. I’d gone a step further and hit empty on the empatho-metre straight up. Each time I’d listen to a sad story, I’d receive the emotion attached to the words, then fail to formulate any appropriate response at that moment. Sometimes even a head nod of acknowledgment was pushing it.
I know that sad news is all around and that it always has been. The T.V, the hospital where I work, friends, family and social media deliver it in varying doses until grabbing a bearing on what’s ‘normal’ becomes hazy.
I think the unsettling feeling for me was threefold:
1. I often feel a significant imbalance between the weight of a sad story and the response I can conjure (which often depended on how I was feeling at that time). I felt it cheapened the interaction.
2. How could I show respect for that exchange of news? Would it call for words or gestures, or would it be a time to be still and sit with them in that space?
3. What did human responsibility look like in these conversations? What about God?
Working at a Summer camp in Detroit a few years back, sad stories were all around. A girl called Alesha was sent for ten weeks straight with nothing but a pair of bathers and a box of donuts. Stories of girls with fragile living circumstances and busted relationships were exchanged between campers and staff and often filled the campgrounds. The girls’ lives were rough, and occasionally, they wanted to talk.
We’d been told in staff training that our ‘tanks would run empty’ unless filled up, every day. To do it, we were to read the Bible. I tried to dodge the stories involving long lineage descriptions or geographical points of interest as they felt impractical in getting the tank full but inevitably ran into them as the days passed.
I get where our leader was heading with the filling of the tank. While I wanted to relate and connect as I read, it was because first I was created to be a relational and empathetic individual. Paul writes to the Romans about how the action of love looks, among other things:
“Rejoice with those who rejoice; mourn with those who mourn.”
Maybe in all of this, there is a responsibility division; one between God and man. Acknowledging that finite capacity we hold in our ability to fully understand and care on this side of eternity when the circumstances seem relentless provides a turning point. And a sense of balance.
The responsibility for us to keep our tank full: full of compassion, empathy, and justice by filling up on the person, life, and work of Jesus and then allowing the product of that to express itself as we interact with others. And then I’ll totally fail at that. I’ll likely grab my milk and bread and run in the middle of a sad story.
But His infilling comes in the morning:
“Because of the Lord ʼs great love we are not consumed, for his compassions never fail. They are new every morning; great is your faithfulness.”
Trusting in the things that are God’s responsibility. Trusting in His capacity to care; more intimately and deeply for that person that what I could ever offer at that moment.
On Tuesday night at a Christian concert, a presenter offered the audience a chance to sponsor a child in need. His words reminded me of the power in action and empathy we have, within the collective:
‘Noone can do everything, but everyone can do something’.
As we spilled out onto the street, a friend backed it up:
‘But God is divine. He can be everyone to everybody, at all the time.’