I remember very clearly when my mother told me that Mr. Christie had died. I was in elementary school, probably age 7 or 8. Mr. Christie was an elderly man in our church. If I ever met him, I do not remember it, but for weeks after his death, like clockwork, I wept for Mr. Christie each Sunday morning in church.
I had always been an emotional child, ready to cry at the drop of a hat. Mr. Christie’s death and the weeks following are the first time I remember crying over someone not directly connected to me. Each week my mother would pack me off to Sunday School and I would seem fine, but somewhere along the hall between the classroom and the sanctuary on my way to worship, a switch would flip and the floodgates would open. I would start thinking about how Mr. Christie had swerved to avoid a head-on collision, saving his wife in the passenger seat while sacrificing himself, and my face would crumple up and the tears would begin.
What I have come to understand is that this somewhat strange event in my childhood actually speaks deeply to who I am as a person. I now see that my sadness over Mr. Christie was early evidence of the fact that I am very highly empathetic by nature. I am slowly learning that there are few people on this planet who truly ache for the pain of others, even strangers, and that I am one of them, for better or worse. I can't watch a commercial for St. Jude’s Children's Hospital without crying. Learning about my friends' personal darkness, talking a girl through suicidal thoughts, watching someone struggle with an eating disorder—these things lacerate my heart as a knife might carve into flesh.
I am beginning to see that my ability to empathize so fiercely with others' pain is both a blessing and a curse. I struggle constantly with discerning what may be a call to ministry, and the extent to which I can feel empathy sometimes obliterates my faith in myself as having pastoral responsibilities in the future. I am always the person that others go to with the darkest parts of their lives. My ability to empathize gives others the space they need to be open and honest, and even though the pain on my end can be crippling, for me (or anyone) to perform genuine pastoral ministry, it could be no other way. In his book The Wounded Healer, Henri Nouwen says, "no one can help anyone without becoming involved, without entering with his whole person into the painful situation, without taking the risk of becoming hurt, wounded or even destroyed in the process. The beginning and the end of all Christian leadership is to give your life for others." Perhaps my tendency to be wounded sympathetically for others is not a sign of weakness in my potential as a pastor but is really the only way I can minister to another human being.
If ever I feel that my tears are a sign of weakness, I have to remind myself that even Jesus wept at the death of a friend. In times of tragedy, I believe there is often little else we can do than pray and weep. As a Christian and as someone who will one day be a minister in some capacity, empathizing with others, even to the extent that it causes me great pain, is a necessary—and involuntary—part of listening to, loving and accepting others, friend and stranger alike. As a child I wept for Mr. Christie; today I may weep for a friend struggling with depression or for the young man I worked with last summer who died in a freak accident a few days ago. However, these are not hurts for me to take from others and to bury in myself; my great consolation is that I do not have to bear any burden on my own. Every burden I take on, be it my pain or someone else’s, can be laid at the foot of the cross and transformed into something beautiful. I was created to empathize with others, but I was created by a God who will not let me carry that alone.