As a beginning chaplain in a psychiatric hospital I recall an encounter with a crying, depressed woman, admitted to the hospital because she had tried to commit suicide. I had just began my twelve-weeks of training, and that was the first time I had seen anyone in such distress.
“Life can’t be that bad,” I said.
As I think now of my lack of empathy, I cringe. I chock it up to my inexperience. That’s not something I would say now. Were I to encounter someone in that state today, I wouldn’t even entertain such a thought. Later I learned, if my memory serves me, that the state had taken her children.
Unfortunately, one way people try to help another in suffering is to tell them how they should feel. It makes us feel empowered to encounter someone in obvious distress and to pronounce on their situation. Not only is it a failure of empathy, it reveals our helplessness. Because we feel weak in the face of another’s need, we assert ourselves with strategies designed to keep us in the driver’s seat.
“See how happy is the man whom God reproves; do not reject the discipline of the Almighty,” Eliphaz tells Job (5:8 Jewish Publication Society translation). Job’s friend did listen to Job’s death-wish in Chapter 3, but responds with advice, with his personal revelation, and now tells Job how he should feel. Like my lack of empathy, with this Beatitude Eliphaz shows how much wisdom he has–and reveals his helplessness.
How has the advice of others, who’ve told you how you should feel, affected you?