Allowing one’s heart to break for the pain of others is deeply human, humane. It is the recognition of our shared capacity for love and pain. It is a reminder of our collective empathy: we can join others in their anger, their darkness, their shame, their un-belonging, their loneliness without having endured exactly the same experience. Over the holidays, I came across a story that touched and broke my heart.
On Christmas Day, a couple unexpectedly and suddenly lost their infant son. His parents laid him down for a nap and when they returned to check on him, he was not breathing. After days in the hospital, they made the heartbreaking decision to discontinue life support, but they made the brave decision to donate his organs to save the lives of several other children.
His mother laid with him on the gurney. As it was rolled to the OR, the hospital staff – nurses, doctors, social workers, volunteers, administrators – lined the perimeters of the hallways in silence to honor this little boy as a hero.
I immediately started to cry, flooded with sorrow for his family’s loss. I could imagine nothing more heartbreaking and confusing for a mother than the loss of a child. And yet, I felt simultaneously flooded with hope. I could also think of nothing more beautiful than the sight of caregivers honoring this baby’s innocent life with solemn reverence. Imagine if they had not been there? Not standing there in witness and kindness as hearts broke in two and raged at the injustice of it all?
I suppose from the outside looking in hope, truth, light, love are indeed visible in times of grief. Love does not erase or even heal (yet) the unimaginable, but my sense is that it encircles it. Love is tangled within loss, within healing, wrapped around loss, wrapped around healing.
This is how I imagine God’s presence, too, encircling us in both our joy and pain.
There is so much more I could write, about how compassion means ‘to suffer with,’ about how compassion is the seed of our deepest humanity, about life is temporal and yet there are things eternal, about how we need to respond to the world’s pain instead of react to it, how we must cherish the ones we love, how we must use our eyes to see…
All of that is true today and will be true tomorrow, no matter what happens in the next 24 hours. Lord knows there will be something, something else equally heartbreaking. This world is sticky. It is cruel. It is loud. It is vast. All true things, which will be true tomorrow, as well. I know to many this week’s world events have been frightening. Indeed, life feels like pandemonium when the sole food for our minds and hearts is the news.
In equal measure, though, hopeful information about who we are as human beings together and alone abounds. This sort of information we contain within ourselves and are imbued through the bonds we share with others. We love people. We love animals. We love great, mysterious, beautiful parts of the world. On days when we gasp in disbelief, we may indeed also gasp in awe. On days we may experience deep sorrow, we may also glimpse light.
I won’t pretend to know the depth of the pain of losing a child. I have never been pregnant let alone been a mother. But I know what it means to love people deeply, and I know even the thought of losing them terrifies me.
Simply reading the news gives one a distorted view of the suffering of the world. The magnitude of suffering is indeed great, but pain is also particular. If we forget the duality of suffering – vast and particular – we will miss opportunities to attend to the suffering in front of us. We can only endure, survive, thrive, if we carry life’s burdens together.
The caregivers in this story remind me what it means to embody compassion.
It matters where you decide to stand every day. It matters where you place your body in space. It matters how you use what you have been to see, to think, to say, to do, to honor, to create, to heal, to embrace, to defend. It matters where you direct your attention. Countercultural work – the work of change – begins within us. We must not lose sight of how our individual choices and actions shape the world.:
Most royal greening verdancy,
Rooted in the sun,
You shine with radiant light,
in this circle of earthly existence
You shine so finely,
it surpasses understanding.
God hugs you.
You are encircled by the arms
of the mystery of God.” – Hildegard of Bingen