Sunday, March 27, 2011

Sharing Pain

A friend recently made the comment that "No one can truly share your pain. They cannot take any of it from you." 

If we're talking physical pain, that's obviously true. Medications may mask pain, by inhibiting the nerve receptors, but they themselves do not treat the cause of pain or heal the injury. So, while another person may prescribe or administer pain relieving medicine that reduces my physical discomfort (I hated it when they described labor pains as "discomfort" rather than pain -- call a spade a spade!), they are not taking the pain upon themselves in any way. That is relief, but not healing, and certainly not sharing. When a child falls off a bicycle and hurts himself, his mother would take her child's pain away in a heartbeat if it were possible, but it's just not. She comforts him, and reduces his fear and embarrassment as much as possible, but she cannot remove the source of his pain.

With emotional pain, it's not as clear. Wikipedia's definition of empathy is "the capacity to recognize, and to some extent, share feelings that are being experienced by another person". says empathy is "the intellectual identification with or vicarious experiencing of the feelings, thoughts, or attitudes of another". Quite a difference. 

One reason I love reading is to learn how other people think, feel, and live. The Bell Jar helps me understand suicidal tendencies; All Quiet on the Western Front helps me understand the horrors of a WWI soldier; To Kill a Mockingbird helps me understand the repercussions of prejudice; autobiographies and biographies help me understand a person's journey, decisions, actions and reactions.

I can identify with the feelings of rejection, domination, or violence of a rape victim, but I am not sharing her feelings. I can have sympathy with the feelings of loss of a family member who has lost a loved one, but I am not lessening that person's pain. I can have compassion for the unfairness of prejudice, but I am not able to change the ignorant person's viewpoint.

However, even if I can't literally share in someone else's pain, I can let her know that I care and I would if I could. When I am sick or hurt, I just want to be left alone -- I don't like attention that intensifies my isolation. BUT, it is comforting to some degree to know that there are people who are willing to help, who care how I feel, and who give a rip about me. No, they can't share in my pain, any more than they can share in my happiness. We live a very individual and personal life within ourselves, an existence that only we and God truly know. Therein lies the only true answer. No one else on earth can share our sorrows and our joys. But God is beyond our relationship with other people. He knows our innermost souls. He lives in our hearts. He, too, feels emotions, and He recognizes our feelings without us having to put them into words. He understands our personal intimacy, and therefore He shares our pain.

He gets me, and He cares. And for that, I am truly grateful and truly comforted.