“My mind to your mind. My thoughts to your thoughts.”
If you are a Star Trek fan, the above words may conjure up images of such Vulcans as Spock or Tuvok, placing their fingers on another’s face while chanting the above words during a Vulcan mind meld (and for those of you who are not Star Trek fans, I apologize).
I’ll admit that Vulcans have held some fascination for me. Granted, the first appealing aspect was the absence of those pesky emotions! Vulcans don’t hear, “You are too emotional,” “You are in denial,” “You are too happy” or “You are too depressed.” Perhaps our love for Spock illustrates how many humans have this love-hate relationship with emotions. But since I am human (at least the last I checked, I am), then knowing a Vulcan would seem quite beneficial. This is a species that can be present with me in a way no human being can. Think of it: A Vulcan is capable of entering your pain with you. They are able to share your reality in such a way that your loneliness can dissipate during periods of suffering.
I think many of us, if we were honest, know exactly what I am talking about. We might not like to admit it, and we may try to avoid letting others know it, but we experience loneliness. Loneliness seems to be one of those best-kept secrets that we hold tightly to our chests. After all, why would we as Americans ever want to admit we are lonely? We are to cherish independence! For years we have upheld the American cowboy as a model of independence. We have encouraged our nation’s children to grow up to be independent. We speak of self-made business people who did it all by themselves. In fact, our devotion to independence may be seen in something as innocuous as the phone. Long gone is one phone number assigned to one family. Departed from our homes is the party line for telephones with their mono-ringtones (for those of you too young to remember, ask an older adult). Today each member of the family has his/her own phone number. That is, a private line in his/her pocket through the means of a personal cell phone with its tailor-made ringtones.
Yet why is it that in the midst of all this talk of independence and being self-made that somehow such songs as “All by Myself” climbed the charts? Could it be that listeners’ souls identified and cried with the song’s crescendo, “I don’t wanna be all by myself”?
I believe such a cry becomes more apparent in the midst of grief. If I were to guess, I would say that one of the most dominant laments I hear while facilitating grief groups is the experience of loneliness. Think about it: when one loses someone they love, it reveals an attachment to a person. If the relationship was very close, that relationship helped to form a person’s identity so that the person was vitally connected to the other. When we have a relationship with someone else, a reality is shared that no one else shares. There are certain jokes that only the two of you really understand. There are certain experiences that you have had with the other but with no one else. If the relationship is with a birth parent, the parent has seen you since that moment you took your first breath. If the attachment is with a sibling, you have quarreled about toys, been teased about your quirks, and have shared secrets about your family. If the relationship is with a spouse, you have a life together with little ways of communicating which no else understands.
Lost attachments are not simply with people. If the attachment is with a home or place in which you have lived, events have transpired in that place that have not occurred in any other space. If you have an attachment to a dream (an expectation of a future), this reality is part of you until it dies. Sometimes that dream is not fully known until it is lost, making its death more difficult to grasp.
When there is a loss, part of you is no more. No matter the type of attachment, a reality was shared; thus, it is not a surprise that a grieving person is lonely. A piece of her is gone. A part of him has been removed. A shared reality has become a solitary reality, a lonely one.
This means a new shared reality becomes a significant need for a grieving person, and in a grief-averting culture, this need may even be accentuated. The grief over the absence of a reality once shared is coupled with a longing for someone to be able share the current reality of pain. Unfortunately, for someone to completely step inside the bereaved’s experience and share this reality of grief to ease the loneliness is an impossibility (unless you are Vulcan). Only the bereaved person has this awareness. No one can genuinely feel how the bereaved person feels. No one can actually experience what the bereaved person experiences. Thus, grief is a lonely adventure regardless if others may share a similar reality.
This is most easily illustrated in a family system. In a family system grief is shared while also being distinct, which may generate both support and conflict. Consider when a parent dies. The siblings may be of help to one another as they express their grief with each other. Through a shared tragic event, the siblings have a common bond that ties them together. The siblings validate and normalize each other’s experiences in this painful, shared reality. There is, however, a limit to the shared experience. Each sibling grew up in a different family. The oldest was an only child until the second child came. The oldest knew his parents without having to share them, but the second child only knew her parents with the presence of the elder sibling. The parents are also changed both as they age and through the relationships with each child. With each additional child, the dynamics of the family system change as each member adjusts to another presence in the system. Furthermore, each sibling had a different relationship with the parent, and each sibling is different. Hence, no sibling can completely comprehend how another sibling is grieving because each one is unique and is grieving a unique relationship.
Oh, to have a Vulcan as a friend.
However, since having a Vulcan friend is only a possibility in television and/or the cinema, our response to those experiencing the loneliness of grief is important. Since we are unable to completely share another’s reality, it may be wise to avoid the phrase, “I know just how you feel.” I may think I know how you feel, but I do not know how you feel. I am not you. I am not in your skin. Such a statement may be more about me than it is about the person grieving for often it is followed by, “When my parent died . . .” or “When I experienced that . . .” Such a statement holds onto the belief, “We are the same,” ignoring the uniqueness of the other’s grief journey. This is described as sympathy in that it fails to notice the differences in grief journeys. Empathy, however, not only acknowledges some similarities in grief journeys but also recognizes the differences. For instance, I know how I feel when I experience a loss, which may include anger, sadness, confusion, and anxiety; therefore, I have some understanding as what you may be experiencing when you say you are grieving. At the same time, empathy embraces the differences between your experience and my experience. To use a metaphor of a person who is drowning, sympathy immerses itself completely into the water and drowns alongside the person while empathy has one foot on land and one foot in the water. Empathy, then, in a limited way can enter into the bereaved person’s reality, easing some of the loneliness. With one foot on land, it is able to provide an anchor of hope of healing through differentiation.
As a Christ-follower, such an understanding of empathy may enhance the now-but-not-yet understanding of God’s reign, particularly for Pentecostals. I will be drawing from Romans 8:26 and the surrounding verses, utilizing the work of New Testament scholar Douglas Moo [see The Epistle to the Romans in The New International Commentary]. Verse 26 reads, “In the same way, the Spirit helps us in our weakness, for we do not know how we should pray, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with inexpressible groanings” (NET). Earlier in this chapter, Paul says that we have been given the Spirit who bears witness with our spirit that we are the children of God (vv. 15-16). The Spirit is a reminder of what is come, the glory that will be displayed; thus, we have this hope that a day is coming when we will be who God intends for us to be. This, then, is referred to as the now-but-not-yet. We, as Christ-followers, have the Spirit now as a deposit of what will occur (not-yet) in that there will be a complete healing: thus, the Spirit connects both the now and the not-yet. Meanwhile, we suffer. We groan (v. 23), and not only do we groan but all of creation groans (v. 22). We live in a suffering world, and we feel loneliness. We experience loss, and we grieve those losses. This too is a reminder of the not-yet. We now have the Spirit, but it is evident through this suffering world that God is not-yet all-in-all.
While both creation and we groan, verse 26 says the Spirit also groans. Loew and Nida state that the Greek for groans (stenagmos) means “to groan or sigh as the result of deep concern or stress.” DBAG calls this concern “an involuntary expression” [A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature, 942]. Moo points out that in this text there is groaning and hope, and he likens it to childbirth in that there is distress now but also a presence of a hope of what is to come. When considering verse 26 and keeping in mind that the Spirit is a deposit of what will come, I propose that the Spirit expresses the triune Godhead’s empathy through groanings of intercession. Through groanings of intercession the Spirit shares the reality of our distress of our suffering while also praying for a change, a hope of healing. In fact, the Spirit is distinct from our pain in that the Spirit is the pledge or hope of the healing to come. When combining this understanding with the above concept of empathy, we see how the Spirit expresses God’s empathy for us. In the same way that human empathy enters into a person’s pain while remaining differentiated from that person’s pain, the Spirit also enters into humanity’s pain and shares their reality by groaning while at the same time providing hope for the future through intercession and being the deposit of what is to come. In this way, empathy is expressed as the divine fully shares our reality.
For Christ-followers who believe in prayers of intercession within the church community, we may also participate in the ministry of the Spirit through the ministry of intercession, a significant emphasis among Pentecostals. While we see in this text how the Spirit prays for us while we suffer, scholars debate whether the Spirit prays using the Christ-follower’s vocal chords or not. Moo suggests that with the absence of any reference to believers in this verse (such as the word “ours”), the groans are that of the one who is interceding, the Holy Spirit. Furthermore, since the continuation of thought from verses 26 to 27 centers on the activity of the Holy Spirit, this would support that the groans are not that of the Christ-follower but are only those of the Spirit [The Epistle to the Romans in The New International Commentary, ed. Gordon Fee (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1996), 525, f. 95]. Pentecostals, such as Gordon Fee, hold that verse 26 refers to speaking in tongues, and Fee believes that the groans belong to the Holy Spirit, utilizing the believer’s voice [Gordon Fee, God’s Empowering Presence: The Holy Spirit in the Letters of Paul (Peabody: Hendrickson Publishers, 1994), 582]. This blog’s intention is not to resolve this issue but rather to embrace the ambiguity. The point of the passage is: the Spirit, who is a deposit of what is to come, enters into our suffering and intercedes on our behalf, whether or not it is through the vocal cords of the Christ-follower or through a person’s natural or supernatural language. Christ-followers may also participate in God’s ministry of empathy of intercession by the church’s expression of empathy through prayers of intercession. As Christ-followers intercede for others who are hurting, they are entering into others’ distress while holding out hope for a change through a request for God to intervene. In this way empathy is expressed as their reality is shared in a limited way.