I hurt just like you
Why do I often feel more empathy for animals than people? When I drive down the road and see a turtle stuck in traffic I empathize. I feel for the turtle. I want only what’s best for him. I know how it feels to move too slow to get everything done that you need to get done. I know how it can seem like life is passing you by at break neck speeds. So when I see a turtle in the road I stop the car. I get out and I lift up the turtle as it hisses at me and I take it to where it is heading; the other side of the road. Yes, I feel great empathy for turtles.
So why don’t I feel the same way for people? Why can’t I see the burdens they carry and stop the car to get out and help them? Why instead do I accuse them of not working hard enough, of not being good enough, of not being fast enough? Why do I care for animals more than people? The other day my friend told me she was afraid that her her dog was going to die of cancer. He had hurt his leg and she was afraid it was a tumor, like she had seen in her previous dog. Ironically, I have thought the same thing about myself on many occasions, “maybe this pain in my side is a tumor. Maybe the headaches mean I have cancer.” I can totally relate. Yet, when she confessed that she had been afraid that her dog had cancer, my first reaction was to encourage her not to freak out so much over pulled muscles and sore feet, that is, to say the exact opposite of what I say to myself. But then for a split second, something like the Spirit came over me, and for a refreshing change, I didn’t encourage through correction, but through empathy. This was such a different and unnatural reaction to me that it was notable. Instead of encouraging my friend to try not to stress, I empathized with her fear. After all, I knew exactly how she felt, and so I said something like, “that must have really scared you.” While these words were not natural to me, they came super naturally on this occasion. Maybe because empathy has been on my mind lately.
As I attempt to raise my nine-year-old, I find that many times empathy is all I am able to offer her as she pulls and strains at the challenges of life. But so many times her complaint leads me to exacerbation. I want to yell at her to straighten up and fly right, as if we were living in the 1940s. I want her to get over it and get on with more important stuff, but then I try to remember that a child’s complaint is the way that they communicate their suffering, their fears, their worries, their trials and their need for grace. And so I am empathizing; I am sharing my own childhood with her, giving us common ground, as I understand the “difficulties” growing up brings. And so empathy, a word I’m not sure I totally understand, is helping me to share the grace of God with my little sinner and even other big sinners. To see myself as no better and no worse, but just as crippled by the trials and pains of this world, and just as in need of grace as the rest of them is more life giving than teaching them to get over it.