Wednesday, October 17, 2007

What's the line between compassion and despair?

Yesterday I was at the hospital for another test. I am getting very familiar with the hospital, at least the waiting rooms.

For this test, I had to drink some special potion mixed with orange juice and then stand in front of an x-ray every 30 minutes for 2 ½ hours. In between my appearances in front of the camera (standing room only!) I could wander the hospital at will—or read. I read a lot and finished my book. I also did a lot of wandering.

I’m a people-watcher and find that hospitals are very moving places to watch people. People at hospitals are just bursting with stories (as are people at airports). With everyone who walked into the radiology waiting room I asked myself whether s/he was seriously ill or just mildly chronically ill, like myself. I wondered if they were frightened, confident, resigned, crazy with worry, depressed about what their bodies were doing. I wondered if they were surprised to realize that they had been taking their health for granted before now (like me) or if, like me, they began to think of all the people who WEREN’T at the hospital that day because those other people felt perfectly fine.

I saw a lady in obvious distress, doubled over in pain. Her daughter was there with her and I thought about the times I was with my mother when she was sick. I hope her daughter feels the same way I did—a tiny satisfaction at being able to be a giver to someone from whom she’s always been a taker before. I saw a young mom struggling with a toddler and an infant. The infant was coughing a menacing cough and about to get an x-ray for pneumonia. I remember those struggles. There’s nothing more heart-wrenching than thinking your baby might be quite ill, and to have to juggle a two-year-old on top of that was more than any mother should have to deal with. I saw a young boy who had broken his hand playing basketball, accompanied by his overworked father who had to leave him alone in the waiting room to make business calls in the hallway.

To get away from my pain on everyone’s behalf, I wandered down the hall and found a little room called the “chapel.” It mostly had couches and soft lighting but in the corner was a book in which people passing through had written their thoughts. Very personal, painful thoughts. I read one woman’s anonymous letter to her dying husband. I read the words of a couple who had written from the chapel during a time when their infant was in critical care and might not survive. There were other writings from similarly frightened people seeking solace. I read them all and sobbed and sobbed.

I can’t believe how my illness has made me so sensitive to the physical ailments of others. If someone happens to mention that they’ve got back pain or stomach problems, I immediately feel for them, quite deeply. And add them to my prayer list.

I’m starting to wonder, what is the point of this? I believe that it makes me more godly to feel more deeply. But I’m not sure I’m feeling the way God would about these things. At least, I’m not sure it’s leading to good, either in my life or in anyone else’s. Does anyone benefit to know that I am truly, deeply touched by their suffering? I don’t know. Unfortunately, though I have gained compassion and empathy/sympathy, I have NOT grown in ability to know how to relieve suffering. So what’s the point?


Emily M. said...

Mourning with those that mourn. It's a beginning, and sometimes it's an end in itself.

Astrid said...

Why can't empathy and sympathy in itself relieve suffering? It may not be able to take physical pain or suffering away, but the mental suffering can ease up knowing someone who truly cares is there through the tough times.