In just a few lines, Bob Dylan describes much of modern dread: every road a path of resistance, every work a Sisyphean exercise in futility, every pathway littered with burnt out lamps, every prayer a fleeting vapor, every tomorrow suddenly a forgotten yesterday, every death impersonal and frighteningly mysterious. These all speak to the deep psychological wounds of life and vulnerability, the trauma of living and loving, the thick of despair and depression. But the ending is what all who long wish to hear: “I’ll be with you when the deal goes down.”
It is hard and uncomfortable to be with people when they face these defeats, though. One of the reasons for this is that, simply put, we don’t want to be dragged down into the pit of despair with anyone. No one wants to be in that pit: neither the person who is in it, nor those of us who can’t imagine why they seem to want to stay there. (Hint: They don’t.)
It is hard to describe depression to one who has not felt it in their bones. It is not mere sadness or pessimism, as I learned but a few years ago. The words that best describe the overwhelming and unshakable darkness inside of my head at the time are hopeless, forsaken, worthless, and guilty. Mere words can never express this extreme despair, though. It was this feeling deep within my soul of being separated from the world, my own self, and my God. Intellectually, perhaps, I knew of my status before God, but I did not feel it at all. One cannot simply “snap out of” this predicament. Most of the time, it feels utterly uncontrollable, and yourself inconsolable.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer writes that for some situations, “only the suffering God can help.” Bonhoeffer explained how this worked for his fellow prisoners: “Misery, sorrow, poverty, loneliness, helplessness, and guilt mean something quite different in the eyes of God than according to human judgment; that God turns toward the very places from which humans turn away; that Christ was born in a stable because there was no room for him in the inn—a prisoner grasps this better than others, and for him this is truly good news.” This “turning towards” is indeed good news, even for prisoners of despair.
This divine response is helpfully described by author and researcher Brené Brown when she describes the difference between empathy and sympathy. Sympathy is to pity someone, to care for them at arm’s length, to “other” them. The difference is subtle, but staggering. What people need from others instead is empathy: approach, proximity, understanding, and entering into the struggle. There is something hopeful, even in the midst of hopelessness, that comes from empathy and knowing that you are not alone. While sympathy “drives disconnection,” empathy “fuels connection.” We often are powerless to end the suffering we experience through another, but our presence can bring warmth in the depths of the cold, damp valley.
Empathy is still somewhat mysterious to me, but there was something comforting when, in a moment of extreme lament during my struggle with depression, I felt Christ’s presence. I was not healed, but I received a glimpse of peace and rest. I was understood. I was sat with. I was staring into the abyss that my Savior stared into when he wept for his dead friend, when he began to sweat blood, and later when he cried out, “My God! My God! Why have you forsaken me?” He knows what it is to know the truth intellectually and yet to feel the despair of separation emotionally and psychologically.
The Incarnation and Crucifixion are the embodied response of divine empathy. Empathy comes from someone who loves and cares and seeks relationship with us in our worst days. Empathy is not just about what God does, but who God is. It is this God of love being grieved and running towards us in warm embrace. Divine empathy means that God understands us, has felt our loss and suffering, and draws near to us. On the cross, Jesus grieved the loss of closeness that all who suffer feel.
Christ has not left us alone now. Jesus told us that he would be with us always, even to the end of the age. That should not just bring us comfort in our own moments of despair globally and individually, but it should be an example of what we are to go and do likewise. Christ is with us in his empathy. He is with us in his grace. He enters in through the consumed body and blood, broken and shed for us. He steps inside us through his Spirit. He surrounds us with his Church, which, as Bonhoeffer said, is Christ existing as community. In what theologians call our mystical union with Christ, grace falls upon us like Niagara Falls. Jesus joins us in the depths through birth and death, and he will also bring us to the heights through his Resurrection and Ascension, for empathy is not just lamenting in despair together, but journeying with someone on the long pathway from life to death to life. What we need is one aspect of who God is: embodied empathy.
The Church is presented in this pandemic with a cultural moment, an opportunity to show those most desperate for hope that its Savior has wounds also. The Church is participating in Christ’s Incarnation and embodied sacrament. For those who are suffering in what seems like an apocalyptic nightmare, there is a Savior who looked despair in the eyes and felt it. Tasted it. Swallowed it whole. He welcomed the original virus of sin and death upon himself. And now he sits with us in mourning, but also in victory. This will not take all of the pain or all of the fear away like a magic key that unlocks us from the dungeon of despair. But as it says in Hebrews, it is a hope that can act, must act, as an anchor for our storm-tossed souls.