Regardless of what Bill Clinton may have said years ago, I don’t think we can ever really feel another’s pain. No matter how compassionate or empathetic we may think we are, we never really vicariously walk in another’s pain. We may indeed simultaneously suffer, but the pain is always different.
I can tell you about being afraid, apprehensive, distraught, or in pain, but all you can do is act as a bystander. Regardless of the unbearable truth that we are incredibly predictable as humans, each’s suffering is unique — unique in that it is undertaken by the individual alone. Yes, there may be collective suffering, but it is”collective” only to the extent that the suffering amongst individuals coexists in time, not that they are experiencing the same exact pain.
Maybe if I tell you about going to the dentist or being scared of having an endoscopy, you can say that you empathize. But what do you say to a first time mother whose five month old baby has suddenly and without reason passed away? You do feel pain because a child has died and a mourning parent (especially a friend) makes you suffer. But you do not feel her pain. I even doubt that the father of the deceased child and the mother suffer the same pain. Once again, their pain merely coincides in time and fact.
Maybe it is because I am getting older and with age you have experienced more things, but I have learned over the years to dread phone calls that begin with “I have some bad news”. They are sometimes followed by the name of an aging relative, but other times they are followed by a younger victim of cancer, a traffic accident, or another misfortune.
That’s what just happened to me when I got the call about my friends’ sudden and unexpected loss of their five month year old baby boy. Born in January, I still hadn’t even had a chance to meet him, but did know from photos that he was beautiful. He was like a boat, a life raft even, they had built from scratch and upon which they had placed their hope and had set sail. And perhaps it is hope, greater than any bodily harm or irrational fear, that is most capable of doing us damage.
Now I have two shipwrecked friends. Meanwhile, I get up in the morning, run my errands, get some work done, eat, even enjoy parts of my day. But whenever I take a short breather, I see the photos of the boy I have yet to meet — his perfect round face, the personality emerging from his pre-smile smile — and I see two parents at the helm of an ark rising above the flood tides, and then my heart breaks. But I am no one to pretend that I feel another’s pain.