When I was a little girl I learned to be careful when my mom had migraine headaches. If I thought too much about her pounding head I would soon have a headache of my own, so I trained myself to pretend to listen whenever I was informed she had a migraine and would ask her how she felt while purposefully ignoring her answer. I had an empathy problem and it wasn’t that I needed to cultivate more. Rather, I had too much and couldn’t manage it.
Even now, when I think about Ruth or Lucy my psyche starts to reel under a weight I cannot bear. Ruth, a beautiful new bride, is expecting her first child. She also has an untreatable brain tumor and is undergoing radiation to buy her enough time so she can deliver her baby… and see the face of the child that will most likely never know her mother. Sometimes, when I picture my sister-in-law, Anne, holding Lucy’s fevered body and and wiping her kissable cheeks after she throws up, I want to curl up into a ball–as if rolling into the fetal position will dismiss the reality of chemotherapy and pain.
A few years ago I visited a friend who was admitted to the psychiatric ward of our hospital, known as the Pine Unit to locals. Hospitals freak me out at the best of times (one reason I opted for a home-birth) but this visit really threw me for a loop. I held tightly to Susanna as we wound our way through halls reverberating with moans and incoherent shouts. By the time we got to Carol’s* room I felt nauseated and busied myself by taping Susanna’s artwork to her wall. When I sat down beside Carol’s bed and grabbed her hand it was as much for my comfort as it was hers. Carol tried to carry on a conversation but her words came out in gibberish and we soon lapsed into silence while I stroked her arm and tried to make some up-beat comments for Susanna’s sake.
Now I wish I’d never gone to the Pine Unit at all. Since then I’ve had a few run-ins with my own mental fragility and despite realizing anxiety is as a prevalent as the common cold, in my more pessimistic moments I’m sure I’m destined for long-term psychiatric care. As you might guess, picturing myself mute and vegetal in the Pine Unit doesn’t do much for my sense of well-being. Like I said, the psychiatric ward is definitely off-limits; I’m not willing to sacrifice my health to offer my company to it’s occupants no matter how sympathetic I feel.
And this is where God and I part ways. Because while I set boundaries to protect myself from unwieldy compassion; God is pouring herself into someone else’s darkest hour. Though I sputter and nearly drown in my own empathy; God burrowed himself into the womb of a teenage girl 2000 years ago so he could drink our pain with us. And whether you think the whole Christmas story is legend or historical fact, the narrative is startling. That the fearsome life-force of creation chose to marinate in amniotic fluid, feel disappointment, get dirty feet, and bleed, is crazy…and it also befits his name, “Emmanuel” or God with us.
The phrase God with us sounds a lot like God is for us and reminds me of a battle cry to rally the troops. But given the circumstances of Jesus’ birth…. the hay, the manure, his unprepared parents; and life… rooting for the underdog, his unexpected agenda of dying instead of taking political power; any jubilant military associations are misplaced. I don’t think the phrase is meant to imply victory but to speak to those who suffer in some way. And though I stumble awkwardly with my own empathy, the Christmas story climaxes with God not only feeling for us, but actually becoming one of us. Unlike me, He commits to and embodies his empathy, as deliberate as a uterine contraction, and as real as a mother’s urge to push.
How can that be anything but startling? Especially for someone like me, who, if I can help it, won’t be going back to the Pine Unit…
Thankful for Christmas,