CS Lewis is credited to have once said, “Getting over a painful experience is much like crossing monkey bars. You have to let go at some point in order to move forward.”
Such letting go often requires great exertion because, when in pain, we feel tremendously heavy. Even the strongest of us can drop to the ground in distress.
Recently, in Montreal, a 10-year-old boy disappeared after he left his home to meet a friend. The police believe he accidentally drowned in the Rivière des Prairies. No proof was found. And, as of writing this article, the search continues with the boy’s father repeatedly saying that he believes his son was abducted and is still alive.
When we are going through such a painful experience, the anxieties surrounding our circumstance can immobilize us. We can’t see, we can’t think, and at times we can’t hardly breathe. And the worst of it, the most difficult to let go of, is our feelings of powerlessness, and the bitter truth that we are truly not in control of the stresses that can, and will, affect us.
We don’t even need to be the one directly affected to feel these uncontrollable realties. One of the interesting sides to this Montreal incident (according to News reports) is that locals started to pledge money after the family initially offered $10,000 to anyone with information about their son’s whereabouts. Additionally, Police say they have received nearly 700 tips from the public and, in an “unprecedented” reaction, more than 500 volunteers showed up to help search.
When we hear of a painful incident not only can we empathize but we can suffer some degree of emotional distress. And studies have proven that actually witnessing a person in suffering will activate the neural pain pathways in our brain. Which, in my experience, can trigger emotional trauma. Like, for example, when someone has witnessed a serious accident involving a close relative or, when another’s pain parallels a past experience and triggers unresolved grief.
Like it not, we are affected by each other’s suffering. And the work of moving forward, from rung to rung through the monkey bars, is a community activity. So, as I see it, we are called, by nature’s design, to accept our empathetic reactions and, in turn, respond with compassion.
Empathy is about being attuned to the feelings of another, whereas compassion goes a step further by integrating an almost (but not quite) selfish need to relieve any suffering. Such empathy and compassion is spoken to in Christian scripture when the writer of Hebrews urged fellow believers to “continue to remember those in prison as if you were together with them in prison, and those who are mistreated as if you yourselves were suffering” (13:3).
Further to such measures, and what I implied in calling compassion an almost selfish act, is that working to help ease the pain of others can go a long way in letting go of our own suffering. Not that we ought not to acknowledge and wrestle with our own pain, but too much self absorption can be a heavy weight. Perhaps this is the deeper meaning behind Ghandi’s words, “The best way to find yourself is to lose yourself in the service of others.”