“One truth about healing presence is that the depth to which you can go within yourself corresponds directly to the depth at which you can connect intimately with another. This holds true for all you experience—the pain and the joy.”
— James Miller & Susan Cutshall
Many have attempted to differentiate empathy from sympathy, which is just a felt manifestation of compassion. Sympathy is unremarkable in that we all have the ability to be sympathetic—to simply feel. But empathic persons are those who are well groomed in the finery of their own suffering. They have experienced the depths of themselves and have, therefore, the inner resources to go deep with another. Anxieties at various points have been met and conquered.
Depths of empathy are the minimum attribute of the person practicing healing presence.
The empathic person has the beauty of other-centeredness about them. They are able to journey with another person, step for step, knowing that with each step is healing presence.
But so what. What difference should this make?
If we are to strive to understand people, help people, or contribute to healing them in Jesus’ name, we need to imagine ourselves capable of going at least to the other person’s depth. If we cannot, we cannot help them. If we can endure something similar to their pain, we are fit to appropriately venture through the jungle of their winter of discontent with them. And still, we must be humbled by what they bear! Theirs is no small suffering. We may be able to endure it, as they are able to, but it would be a struggle, as it’s a struggle for them who actually experience such a groaning abyss.
Heights and Depths
It’s true that if we wish to bear the shattering depths of our experiences we are equally able to access the raucous heights, also.
Wherever there is the capacity to endure great pain there is the capacity to experience great joy. At both poles of the pain-joy continuum there are sweeping ironies, but only the one who depends on Christ can endure this. There is great personal strength required to patiently bear pain, and such forbearance delivers its own blessing by faith.
Where there are depths, there are equivalently heights.
The carer’s challenge is one not of sympathy, but of empathy; the ability to walk side by side with another, without words, to experience their depths with them. As it’s a privilege to care, it’s a privilege to suffer with someone, as it’s a privilege to share in their joy. As Paul says, “Weep with those who weep; rejoice with those who rejoice.”
© 2013 S. J. Wickham.