Empathy Without Overwhelm

October 12th, 2011

How do you hold the pain of the world without being swallowed whole by it? How do you hold the pain of your loved ones without being consumed by anxiety and fear? How do you even hold your own pain without it overwhelming your life?

One of the most horrendous experiences of my life was holding my two year old son down while a doctor performed a lumbar puncture. Nothing can prepare you for the moment when you have to inflict pain on your own flesh and blood. It broke my heart to hear him scream, but hurt even more to see his confusion that the people he thought he could trust most in the world had, in this moment, become his torturers. They might as well have stuck that needle in my spine and twisted it the way I felt that day. I wanted to tell him what Atticus Finch told Jem in To Kill a Mockingbird,

There’s a lot of ugly things in this world, son. I wish I could keep ‘em all away from you. That’s never possible.

All parents know the agony of watching your children suffer and being unable to remove the pain. It’s not just parents. This is a universal experience, at least for anyone who dares to get close enough to see, to feel, to care, to know the pain of others in some small way. Sometimes you wish you didn’t know so much. It’s like John Coffey in the movie The Green Mile, the giant with the gift of empathic healing. At one point. Coffey said,

I’m tired boss. Mostly I’m tired of people being ugly to each other. I’m tired of all the pain I hear and feel in the world everyday. There’s too much of it. It’s like pieces of glass in my head all the time.

I’ve had moments like that. We all have. It breaks your heart to feel so much pain. The challenge is to let your heart break open and not just break.

In many ways, the path we are all on is one of holding the tension between feeling the pain of others and not being overwhelmed by it. It’s certainly been my path. The first serious job I had was running a youth group in a wealthy, middle class suburb in the late 1980s. I saw these kids in their homes and at school, at youth group and in the neighborhood. Their lives appeared normal, as far as you can tell these things on the surface.

My second job was doing work on the streets of the inner city, where I mixed with homeless people, addicts, mentally ill drifters and prostitutes. This was only 15 minutes away from the suburban youth group, but they were worlds apart. Or so I thought.

One day I was walking along the street and went past a row of people begging for money. This wasn’t unusual. What was unusual was the age of these kids- they were 12 and 13 years old. I made eye contact along the line of kids and couldn’t believe my eyes when I realized that one of the kids was from my suburban youth group. I had been in his home only a few months before. We’d played mini golf the year before. He was 12, and his face had all the innocence of a 12 year old. But I saw a sadness that I hadn’t seen in his home. Maybe I wasn’t ready to recognize it.

I had three revelations in that moment.

  1. Pain is universal. There is only the finest line between a middle class family and a homeless 12 year old. There is only the faintest line between a 12 year old boy on the street in Sydney Australia and a 12 year boy forced into slavery in Sudan. They are both lost in different ways. When I looked in his eyes, I saw reflected back every teenage boy in the world and I saw myself as a 12 year old boy. Now I have a 12 year old son of my own, and occasionally catch glimpses of the boy on the street. The face of pain is universal.
  2. There was NOTHING I could do. He didn’t want my help, and when I saw him in the streets from time to time, he avoided me. My heart was breaking for this young kid, as it broke for so many people I met on the streets, and yet, as long as people don’t want to change their situation, for whatever reason, there is little you can do but be there and remain open.
  3. The size and scope of the problem was overwhelming. Even if this kid did want my help, and even if there was much I could do for him, he was just ONE kid. There were hundreds of others just like him, and this was just one city. It felt like too much pain to hold in my heart.

My mind ran through the blame game. Being overwhelmed will often take you to blame. Should I have seen the problem when I visited his home? Were his parents to blame? Was it society’s fault? What if someone had helped him before it got to this?

I had to move beyond the blame game in order to accept this situation as it was. I had to forgive the world for not matching my expectations or timeline for change. For whatever reason, he was living on the streets and didn’t want help FOR NOW. Beyond blame and judgment, my heart was broken open but not broken.

I have learnt over the years that even when you feel overwhelmed by sadness and the size of the problems you face, there is a way to feel it deeply without letting it destroy you. It involves trusting that everyone has their own contract with life. You can help. You can support. You can ease suffering. Sometimes you can even make an enormous difference. But ultimately, everyone is on a path they need to be on, as hard as it can be to understand.

I end with one of my favorite pieces of writing from Oriah Mountain Dreamer. It captures all of my feelings about pain; my desire to end it, my need to accept it and the common humanity we discover in the midst of it. May it speak to you in some meaningful way as it does for me.

Tell me a story of who you are, and see who I am in the stories I am living.
And together we will remember that each of us always has a choice.

Don’t tell me how wonderful things will be . . . some day.
Show me you can risk being completely at peace,
truly OK with the way things are right now in this moment,
and again in the next and the next and the next. . .

I have heard enough warrior stories of heroic daring.
Tell me how you crumble when you hit the wall,
the place you cannot go beyond by the strength of your own will.
What carries you to the other side of that wall,
to the fragile beauty of your own humanness?

Take me to the places on the earth that teach you how to dance, the places where you can risk letting the world break your heart.
And I will take you to the places where the earth beneath my feet and the stars overhead make my heart whole again and again.

Show me how you offer to your people and the world the stories and the songs you want our children’s children to remember, and I will show you how I struggle not to change the world, but to love it.

Sit beside me in long moments of shared solitude, knowing both our absolute aloneness and our undeniable belonging. Dance with me in the silence and in the sound of small daily words, holding neither against me at the end of the day.

And when the sound of all the declarations of our sincerest intentions has died away on the wind, dance with me in the infinite pause before the next great inhale of the breath that is breathing us all into being, not filling the emptiness from the outside or from within.

Don’t say, “Yes!” Just take my hand and dance with me. The Dance by Oriah Mountain Dreamer

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  4. Joanna says:

    Thank you Ian – this is a really interesting series.

  5. Carol Shimp says:

    I once received a message from spirit, (I can hear audio messages) The word was, “You can’t heal the world, take care of your loved ones.”  But I have friends that need help. I confort them, I try, and then I cook dinner for my family. If everyone would take care of their own, share, be responsible, the world would be a wonderful place.

  6. shereen says:

    love it love it it is very interesting article,,,,GBU Ian

  7. ian says:

    And God bless you too Shereen

  8. I, too, am finding it difficult to be around those who arent ready to face their pain and my help. I see them suffer and sometimes transfer their dissatisfaction on me, and I’m shocked to find myself becoming petty in my reaction. It takes a strong person to be the rock for someone else.

  9. Lynette says:

    Thanks for this wonderful article.  I have deep empathy but haven’t yet been able to transmute but I am working on it.  I want to help not for my ego as some may suggest of people who have a desire to help, I want no thanks or recognition, if I could help invisibly I would.  It is my belief that as our planet evolves unnecessary suffering will decrease and in the meantime I want to help the best I could when others will let me.

     Loved this article, thank-you! 

  10. stargardener says:

    I have read this post three times … Leaving this tab open so I could absorb more from the meaning of what you have written here. This is such an issue for me. Caring so much and often feeling so powerless. The following quote is my takeaway …
    “Take me to the places on the earth that teach you how to dance, the places where you can risk letting the world break your heart. // And I will take you to the places where the earth beneath my feet and the stars overhead make my heart whole again and again.”
    My gratitude to you for sharing from your heart in this series.

  11. ian says:

    thanks for your comment. Its a beautiful quote from Oriah- glad it connected

  12. [...] Blog Archive » Empathy Without Overwhelm Posted by MagMan on 25/12/2011 in Papers | Subscribe soulseeds.com posted by friends:  (2) @soulseedz: The size of world problems can feel [...]

  13. Heulwen Renshaw says:

    Ever since I’ve been interested in the spiritual world, I don’t find myself attaching myself Too strongly to anything any more for some reason. I used to cling to my children, to my elderly Mother, & family like there was no tomorrow. Now I love them by being there for them, if anyone needs me..I’m there, to listen, to grieve, to teach them not to take anything too seriously, and advise them that God will not give us anything that we can’t bear,….IF we trust in Him and give Him the chance to come into our souls and lead us on. Anything is possible as long as we ‘trust’ in Him and let Him take the heavy weight, He’s here to help us if only we had faith in Him to do the things we cannot. Let yourself shine, smile, and believe in yourself,…because He does!

  14. Thanks for such a personal and touching story. I hope that you son is well and will one day appreciate the real meaning of you holding him this way. It’s great that you are able to make us aware of the challenges young people face and the work you are doing to assit and empower them. Donovan

  15. I honestly feel like I am aligned with all vibes coming from you and others. My blogs have been, literally, in sync with all the messages I’ve read coming from you and others. It’s incredible. You’re welcome to check out my blog here:
    http://nokomis-daughterofthemoon.blogspot.com/2012/02/nokomis-inexhaustible_11.html.
    I feel like the first step toward forgiving and letting go is accepting your feelings, to not try to ignore how much you care but to embrace it, allow it and allow it to help you let go. Trying to push a problem or a person out of your mind only keeps them there all that much more. It’s like you’re focusing on not focusing on them, which is still focusing on them. I had a LOT of accepting to do. By accepting I was able to let go. I stopped fighting. In many ways my heart is stronger and more flexible. I feel healthier. This blog is a universal reassurance that I’m on the right track. It’s a kind reassurance that I didn’t ask for but am grateful for. 

  16. Anonymous says:

    so real. and the poem, The Dance, is so beutiful…

  17. Paulina says:

    Just beautiul ian!  Surrender..Let go. Keep dancing.

  18. Nadine Marie says:

    Thank you for this reminder Ian, “forgive the world for not matching my expectations or timeline for change.” And I forgive myself for the times that I fail to forgive the world.  Much blessings, namaste.

  19. [...] Empathy Without Overwhelm [...]

  20. Pauline says:

    It is so hard to care about the people who are in our lives without letting their pain creep into our own lives. Your advice to be there but let them walk the journey that is set before them is solid. I will keep that close to my heart. Thank you!

  21. First, I would like to say thank you, Ian, for what you do out there in the world. For having the guts to go out in the muddy trenches to offer a hand up out of the pits we humans sometimes find ourselves in. It can be a harsh, ugly, painful place for so many. But on the flip side of that coin, there is also so much beauty in the world.I like to believe there is a reason for everything, although explaining what I see as a world out of balance is impossible. I do think that we, who are given gifts or talents or insights or abundance, were gifted in order to share with others that don’t have for whatever reason. To show love and compassion for our fellow man and woman and children (and even animals). Thank you for sharing a piece of your heart, Ian. God bless you for not giving up and for sharing the beautiful parts as well.

  22. brian says:

    VERY well done.  TY for sharing!

  23. Anonymous says:

    I just want to say thank you, Ian, for this awesome story, insights, and brilliant wisdom .  Your points really reached me.  One of your points was about the movie the Green Mile.  I was so touched by John Coffey in that movie too.  So much that since, I’ve always tried to be that when I see the greatest hurts of other people – I hope that I can take it all away through my empathy for people and their pain.  That is surely part of what inspired me to start writing the ebook I’m writing about affection for healing.  It is so much a part of me to think that way and to wonder how it is done truly in a way which truly works in results and easing of pain.  Thank you again.  Your blogs are truly changing my life and inspiring me.  They really do a lot of the thinking through to solutions of questions I have in my own mind so often. 

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  26. Juanita King says:

    Thank you for sharing your thoughts on pain (experiencing, trying to save someone from it and witnessing it). It’s not possible to escape it, it’s what we do with pain no matter how it presents itself. This is what I learned from your article. Thank you for the lessonJuanita (Twitter)

  27. […] Empathy Without Overwhelm. […]