Imagination is not only the uniquely human capacity to envision that which is not, and, therefore, the foundation of all invention and innovation. In its arguably most transformative and revelatory capacity, it is the power that enables us to empathize with humans whose experiences we have never shared.
– J.K. Rowling
It wasn’t until I was eighteen that I was allowed to get my ears pierced. I was not a rebellious sort, eager to please and keep peace, so this was not something I challenged or fought against. An adult friend with a piercing gun came over one day after school and pierced my sister’s and my ears. Julie went first. She was the most devoted and probably still wears earrings to this day. I have found jewelry to be a nuisance, along with makeup, and wear little of both.
When our friend placed the gun to my first ear, I know I was scared. But the second ear was worse. I lurched. Upon close examination, one will recognize the unevenness of the holes in my empty, pierced earlobes.
I knew too much the second time around.
Childbirth was the same. Once I hit the hard stuff with my second, my daughter, I remembered. I remembered transition and pushing, recalling the desperate sensations from the first time around.
Same with all my marathons.
It’s funny how we forget pain, physical or emotional, it doesn’t matter. We forget the sharpness, the edge. Somehow it gets fuzzy and glossed over in the romantic remembrances, particularly when the pain results in a positive outcome like childbirth or upon completion of a long, trained-for endeavor.
But, I do believe this second-time-around pain is powerful, particularly when we are able to walk with another through their suffering. Second-time-around pain is our chance to identify, to expand in kindness, to offer another a remarkable sense of presence and compassion, providing respite and relief.
Our ability to love through empathy is perhaps our greatest human calling. The products of connection, compassion, consolation through the work of our imaginative extrapolation is extraordinary. There is no need for us to recreate our own pain, our own exact experience to be able to empathize. We seek to understand, we wonder, we feel. We bear the weight through our proximity and our sought understanding.
Furthermore, I believe empathy is our greatest Christian calling.
I have wrestled to the ground the idea of Christianity. What does it mean to be a Christian beyond religion, beyond the system? What is collective Christianity when it isn’t tied to empire or Republican Party? What is Christianity beyond a practice that gathers people on Sunday mornings?
What is Christianity if we cannot translate our experience into truly loving everyone?
What is the point?
I’m not so sure how I feel about the idea of Jesus dying on the cross just for my sins. I think it’s a fine idea and I’m grateful, but I’m not so sure God needed this to love me. In fact, I hope God didn’t need this gruesome experience to love me, to love the world. I think God loves the world because God loves the world. I think God loves me because God loves me. This is God being God. It’s pretty fantastic in my book.
So, why did Jesus die? Why did Jesus resurrect? I think, it’s because Jesus had to experience that pain, so he could then return and identify with us in ours. Jesus is the ultimate vehicle for connection and compassion and consolation.
Whenever I feel the sting a second time around, it moves me. I cry. I want to make it better. I want to take away my friend’s suffering, too. I remember what my experience was and it hurts me to see them hurt.
This is empathy. This is understanding, a related feeling that I have in my viscera, a sting, a pressure, a pain.
Never can I relate in full, but I can try. Never can I immerse myself in another’s experience, but I can try. This again is our greatest human offering – empathy through compassion, tenderness, love.
And imagine with me, this Jesus who proclaimed His love for us. God who proclaimed Her love for us. Imagine an identification, imagine not just an empathy, but a felt and whole sensation of our suffering and our unrelenting grief. Imagine this – that the God of the Universe knows all, feels all, holds all. This is made possible because the first time around was complete, terror-laden but complete.
Christianity, for me, needs to be simplified, bare-bones, relatable. We make it so hard to achieve, attaching rules and performance evaluations and expectations. It’s simple, friends. It’s about love – and it starts and ends with empathy, with compassion, with tenderness, with knowing.
I am a Christian, not because of how I voted, for that indicates nothing. I am a Christian because I am committed to bearing the wounds of another in my body. I am a Christian because I am committed to honoring another’s pain in my body. I am a Christian because I know how remarkably I am loved and I cannot help but love, in kind.
Second-time-around pain is our super power.