Being known as a religion writer, sometimes people write or call me to tell about their experiences with God.
Sometimes they tell me of their theological ideas, which may or may not coincide with mine. Sometimes they tell of their own deep pain, past sin or present struggles.
Around Christmas I found an envelope on my chair, marked “personal and private.” Hand-delivered and from a woman in the community, it contained a handwritten letter several pages long, written from the woman’s “prayer closet” during the early morning hours.
She wrote about hearing the sounds of a child crying for his or her mother. She wrote about abandonment and aloneness and of a failed marriage — her own parents’ marriage, I think — and a father who did his best for his children but wasn’t there emotionally.
The letter writer, a senior citizen, never married nor had children of her own, yet she wrote about experiencing maternal feelings for children, feeling empathy and sympathy for the children she sees and hears about who may feel as she felt growing up.
She said she wants to use these feelings to help “the abandoned, the orphans, the suddenly parentless, the suddenly childless, those suffering cruelty and starvation, sickness and disease,” but without means or a platform, what could she do? How could she, a senior citizen in a small town in central Florida do?
Her letter was filled with urgency. She wrote about people reaching out to each other, being kind, offering a smile. She asked if I might use the words she wrote to share her message with my readers. She signed the letter “a caring human being.”
I kept her letter and read it over a few times, wondering what I could do about it, how to respond to it or incorporate it into a column. Sometimes God puts half an idea in my lap (or on my chair) and it takes a while to discover the other half.
The woman’s letter reminded me of my annual Christmas sadness. Truly, during the month of December I go into a profound funk, which many people also do. Mine, however, has nothing to do with any bad Christmas memories of my own. It’s more like I absorb the sadness of others.
Here at the newspaper we continually hear the stories of people who struggle deeply, of their need and want, loss and pain. It seems to intensify at Christmas, and as hard as I try to fortify my heart, I can’t help taking on others’ pain, which I’ve come to expect. Once Christmas passes, so does the sadness and I go on.
Often I wonder if maybe it’s from God. Like, maybe he allows some of his people to bear others’ emotional burdens. Maybe when others’ sadness and worry and anxiety is almost to the overflow point, God scoops it up and gives it to someone who doesn’t have much of his or her own, just to hold for a while, just for a few weeks. It’s like a definition for empathy I read recently: “Your pain in my heart.”
The Bible tells us to bear one another’s burdens, and perhaps that’s part of what that means.
The late Eric Hoffer, an American social writer and philosopher, said that compassion is probably the only antitoxin of the soul. “Where there is compassion even the most poisonous impulses are relatively harmless,” he wrote. “One would rather see the world run by men who set their heart on toys but are accessible to pity than men animated by lofty ideals whose dedication makes them ruthless.
“In the chemistry of a man’s soul, almost all noble qualities — courage, honor, hope, faith, duty, loyalty, etc. — can be transmuted into ruthlessness,” he wrote. “Compassion alone stands apart from the continuous traffic between good and evil proceeding within us.
We need to be able to feel “your pain in my heart” if only to make us more humane.
However, as a man who works full-time with families in need told me, while it’s good to feel others’ sadness, it’s not healthy to keep it. He said when he takes someone’s pain, he feels it, lets it do its work in him to make him more compassionate and less judgmental, then gives it to Jesus, the only one with the power to actually change people’s hearts and lives.
Just as we’re to bear one another’s burdens, we’re also to cast all of our cares upon God, for he cares for us (1 Peter 5:7, emphasis mine).
I take that to mean he cares for us and maybe even does the caring for us, calming our anxieties and giving us peace.
Nancy Kennedy is the author of “Move Over, Victoria - I Know the Real Secret,” “Girl on a Swing,” and her latest book, “Lipstick Grace.” She can be reached at 352-564-2927, Monday through Thursday, or via e-mail at email@example.com.