Pain has a way of curling us inward. Our protective spine furls around our soft hearts and suffering. Pain has a quiet way of separating us, of muffling our cries for help and hiding our hurting souls. And as we huddle into our spirits for safety, others fold away like the petals of a dying flower. It is slow at first; a peeling back of a layer of closeness. Fewer phone calls, avoided conversations, awkward responses become commonplace. The separation is quiet, at times hardly noticeable, but nonetheless full of hurt. As the flower dies, the petals brown and crumble, and what was once one unit against the elements is now skeletal and fragile.
So it is with life. There is a ghosting that surrounds pain, layering hurt upon hurt. It is sometimes slow, even unnoticeable. Other times it is an obvious gaping division between the ghosted and the ghoster. Much time is spent blaming the person in pain: for not reaching out, for handling criticism poorly, for failing to share. Less time seems to be spent on self-reflection by those most capable of helping carry the weight of the pain of another. Many do not want to, or feel they simply cannot, sit with the suffering of others. It takes peace, inward and outward calmness, fortitude of faith in God and humanity, and perhaps above all, humility. Humility says, “I can’t fix this for you, but I can sit in the broken pieces; I cannot clean this, but I can accept the mess right now.” Humility creates the opportunity for empathy, the choice to take on suffering to lift someone else.
Sharing in someone’s suffering is a holy responsibility, but it is one often shirked by those who most highly tout it. We are uncomfortable in our society to over-involve ourselves in the lives of others, and someone who is suffering is at times prickly, tenuous, and even invisible. To help the hurting, we must see beyond painted smiles, we must approach rather than retreat. We also must be willing to hold on to faith, but accept that the other person may be letting go. To be there for them, the tired cliche we tell people when they are struggling, we must actually be there. Telling someone who is suffering to call you if they need anything is akin to ignoring them. Even if the person would ask, they sometimes simply can’t. Instead, show up. Make the phone call. Knock on the door with a meal in hand. Sit in silence if they need to talk. Pray continuously. Be there without excuse, without explanation, and without judgment.
I have made a mess of this so many times. I have retreated. I have ignored or assumed. I have forgotten. But sometimes I get it right. Sometimes I think I have been there in a God-ordained way. And the more I study the character of Christ, the more I want to bear burdens alongside others. There is a lightness in the communal experience when done right. It might not heal the pain or change the circumstance, but it affirms the sufferer that she is not alone. And sometimes, it changes literally everything. When Moses grew weary of holding up his arms in the battle with the Amalekites, Aaron and Hur were there to help him. It was a simple task: just raise those weary arms up, but with help, it changed the course of the battle. Consider the friends who brought the paralyzed man to Jesus. Think of the symbolism there. Out of no fault of his own, he was separated, unable to get to Jesus or bring about his own healing. His friends were willing to carry him and wise enough to find a way into the crowd. Their willingness changed his life completely. Not every experience will be miraculous, but every experience will be valuable. Every offering of time and concern will change something for the person who needs you. Suffering wears so many faces in our society, and we become immune to its power. But worse, we often become immune to our calling to help ease suffering. God, let me never forget to be the hands and feet.