I belong to a wonderful private Facebook group. What makes this group part of my daily social networking addiction is what we all share in common. We are all former members of a fundamentalist Christian cult.
We share our stories, really bad jokes, get brutally and often profanely honest, connect with old friends, and generally support one another as we all work through what growing up in a very controlled and toxic environment has done to us. Personally, it has helped me finally have a place to share with those who truly understand what my past was really like, something I’ve not been able to do completely until I found this crazy cavalcade of cult survivors.
Every so often someone joins our group, and is dismayed by the raw and painful emotions they encounter there. They don’t quite understand the anger and the pain displayed, often by people who escaped the cult years ago. And so they usually end up offering the same advice: Get over it.
I really hate that platitude.
How does one “get over” discovering that everything they’d been taught about God and religion since childhood was a lie? How does one get over needless deaths or prolonged illnesses brought on by church teachings? How does one get over being inculcated into a “religion” that fostered rape, child abuse, spousal abuse, forced divorce, abandonment of every sort—that created and insisted upon poverty?
How does one “get over” losing family members who will no longer have anything to do with you, because you walked away from “God’s True Church”?
How does one “get over” all the things, and all the ways, that have nearly broken us, when patching and sewing back together all the cracks, rends, and damage done to us is such an agonizingly slow process?
While it is true that time can soften the memories and ease the pain of past traumas, “getting over it” is an impossibility. Life-altering events forever change us—even positive ones. But it seems to be the negative events that we have such a hard time with. Maybe it’s because we suppress the emotions they bring up in us, and don’t share our stories, because we’ve encountered too many “get over it” responses. Maybe it’s because our culture and our churches tell us that we must forgive, must be strong, must move on, must stop “living in the past.”
So we try to do those things, by hiding our anger and anguish. Which only leaves us feeling fragile, stuck and alone.
I sometimes wonder if being empathetic is becoming a lost art. Other people’s pains and struggles can make us feel uncomfortable, yes. And hearing of the pain of another can also make us prideful, insofar as we make the terrible mistake of assuming that we know what they really should be feeling and doing.
When that happens, the other person—the person who only needs to be heard and maybe even a little respected—finds themselves dismissed. Declared (however subtly) lacking and weak, they turn away, feeling just as bad, if not a good deal worse, than they did before they reached out.
Empathy does the opposite. Empathy doesn’t cower at the brutal honesty of pain. It doesn’t write off the sufferer as immature just because they fail to take pre-formulated steps to wellness.
Empathy embraces the person and the pain they are wracked with. It lets the sufferer have freedom to heal in their own way and time: it does not rush them, or immediately formulate a solution for them. It allows him or her emote, to vent, to feel like someone finally gives a damn about them.
People who are empathetic—empaths—often understand suffering up close and personal. They are coming from a place that is true to Jesus’ ancient and beautiful teaching of “Love your neighbor as you love yourself.” They know how to do that. They know what that means.
All of us need empaths in our lives. They are, to me, a divine blessing, tools in the hands of a loving God, gifted to us so that we can feel less alone, less afraid, less misunderstood, less like giving up. Their examples of kindness and patience, and their capacity for loving so beautifully, are something that I strive to emulate.
I want to show others the love that I have been shown. If you would join me in this nurturing and passing along of empathy, maybe together we can bring a little bit of healing into the world.