A while ago, I read a historical novel about an insane asylum during the Civil War. One of the minor characters, Eleanor, imagines the pain and suffering of every creature on the planet:
“She would not eat breakfast, as the slab of bacon was once a pig who cringed at a falling ax, and the eggs evoked a vision of the creshfallen hen, her future chicks stolen right out from under her. At night Eleanor imagined kittens calling to her from the bottom of imaginary wells; (. . . ) Dr. Henry Cowell, the head psychiatrist at the Sanibel Asylum, had worked with her patiently and had made considerable progress. But now she was back on the subject of that patient horse she used to see in Baltimore, pulling a carriage full of rowdy tourists in the heat of the summer. ( . . .)
‘The horse was doing its job,’ [Dr. Cowell] said. ‘Horses have roles, just like people. Men have roles. And so do women. You have a role, Mrs. Beacon. Your role is back home at your husband’s side.’
‘My husband is cruel. He kills spiders that are minding their own business.’”
Sometimes, I feel a little like this woman.
It’ll start off innocently enough. Usually, I’ll be depressed (or otherwise slightly “off”). I’ll have sat in the house—not writing or reading, not talking, not wanting to do anything good for me, a sloth draped over the edge of the sofa, as intelligent as a sofa pillow—and I’ll feel the need to leave the house. Pronto. Or else I’ll scream, and need to throw pillows at no one, and have to be carted off to Bedlam forever. (Never mind that it’s in Britain.)
So I’ll leave the house, conscious that I’ve been Very Self Centered. Maybe if I start focusing on other people, I’ll realize that my life isn’t anything to be depressed about. So I’ll hit a fast food place (nothing like fried chicken fingers and french fries to help depression, right?) and look at everyone else. Think hard about them.
They are people, I chant to myself, people just like me. Maybe they’re feeling pain, too. Maybe their lives are really awful . . . horrible . . . they need prayer, they need someone to empathize, they need ME to notice how much pain they’re in and help shoulder that burden.
Like that sad, sad story I heard about somebody at church . . . or that friend who shared her horrible abusive past . . . or . . . and, oh, what if that had been ME that had that happen, how horrible I would feel, how horrible I feel right now, identifying with her pain . . . and so on.
Now, it’s not bad to empathize with others or help carry their burdens; those are good things, and there’s a ton of Bible verses to back that up. But somewhere along the way, my mind shifted from a healthy desire to love others to something entirely different.
It’s like the lady in the asylum, who identifies with and feels the pain of very creature on the planet. (Or thinks she does.) It’s an over-identification with another person’s pain. In a sense, it’s just as self-centered as the plain Jane version of self-centeredness, because it’s trying to feel the other person’s pain as MINE and forgetting that I am a different person.
It’s not empathetic. It’s unhealthy.
The insane woman hasn’t pulled a carriage of rowdy tourists; why should she identify so much with this horse that she cannot function?
I haven’t experienced horrible abuse; why should I imagine it to the extent that I feel it DID happen to me or even become non-functional over this pain?
It still centers on me, rather than the other person’s need. It’s not terribly helpful for the other person, either; what support can I offer if I’m wallowing in imagined pain?
It also forgets that when God told us to help carry each other’s burdens, we weren’t supposed to make it all about my effort, what I can do to help. Some things only God can do.
Loving others strikes a balance of sorts. We neither identify with other’s pain to the point of being incapacitated (forgetting that we’re separate people) nor do we callously disregard it (forgetting that we are both people, though separate).
It’s like the neighbor in Robert Frost’s poem “Mending Wall” says:
Good fences make good neighbors.
Forgetting that I’m a separate person and that my emotions are mine and no one else’s isn’t healthy. I’d do well to remember that.