By Jenna Ebener
I recently read a novel called “Bruiser” by Neal Shusterman. It describes a boy who has empathy to an unheard-of level. He acutely feels what others around him are feeling, but he removes their emotional and physical pains to take on himself. As a result, he is constantly covered in bruises and is called Bruiser. The caveat is he only takes on the suffering of those he cares about, so he isolates himself. He is seen as someone not worthy to befriend.
As the book goes on and others start to see his true self, they cannot help but become friends with him. As wonderful as that is for Bruiser, his emotional and physical injuries continue to increase to an alarming rate. His friends become so used to the feeling of bliss they have around him, they do not realize how much he is suffering because of them. When they finally realize they are using their friend, they hold on to some of their suffering — the challenge is they have to want to keep their pain.
This book really had an impact on me because I have a very thin empathy barrier. Our school with medically fragile students has seen an unprecedented amount of loss this school year; five students passed away in less than two months. We have also had students in crisis who put themselves or others at risk for serious harm. As a result, my empathy has been in overdrive.
As I listen to, comfort and encourage others, I am able to ease some of their pain while taking on some of it myself. My empathy is a large reason I entered the field of social work. My heart aches to see people in pain, especially when that pain is the result of seeing someone they care about suffering, and I want to help. Especially these past couple of months, I have felt the constant exposure to the pain of others wearing me down. Reading “Bruiser” made me wonder what we would look like if we took on the pain of others in our bodies. How bruised would we be?
The good news is we do not take on suffering alone. I can keep doing what I am doing because of someone who takes our suffering away: Jesus. While Bruiser shied away from connecting with others so he would feel less pain, Jesus does the opposite. He adamantly loves each of us, no matter the degree of our suffering. He died on the cross as the ultimate sacrifice in order to take our suffering away. It is healthy, and I would even say essential, to take on some of the struggles of other people through empathy. However, we need to know what to do with that empathy and offer it up to God. Jesus wants every part of us, including our pain. Do we accept his offer of mercy? Do we then thank him?
A beautiful benefit to empathy is that you also feel the joy of others. For example, I find joy in watching our school facility dog Gregory pounce after toys. My joy intensifies when I see others gain joy from watching him. Imagine the joy Jesus feels when thousands of his children not only find but share true joy with him!
“[T]alk to us. We’ll keep our pain, but I promise we’ll share our joy” (“Bruiser,” p. 328). With Jesus, we can offer our pain and our happiness and he accepts both with the greatest joy. “Let us fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy set before him endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God” (Hebrews 12:2).
(Jenna Ebener, who has a Master of Social Work from St. Ambrose University in Davenport, is a social worker at a school in Colorado for students with disabilities.)