(A Note to the Reader: while this blog may read by itself, it is a continuation of the previous blog.)
If you are a Star Trek Voyager fan (and for those of you who are not, you may skip to the next paragraph), Seven of Nine is my favorite character because her particular storyline centers upon the embracing of her humanity. One particular episode, “Infinite Regress,” powerfully underscores her claiming her identity when the loss of her unique neural pattern is permanently threatened. Through the use of a mind meld, Tuvok, a Vulcan, shares Seven’s reality in hopes of providing an anchor for her sense of self.
While a fictitious, sci-fi television show, “Infinite Regress” helps to illustrate a need that is exposed in the midst of grief: the loss of identity generates the need for a shared reality. Such a shared reality becomes an anchor for one’s identity as one is swimming alone in the Sea of Lostness. In order to grasp how grief involves the loss of identity, I invite the reader to refer to my previous post. Loss signifies a prior attachment, an attachment that has shaped one’s identity. The implication of a close attachment on the sense of self can be portrayed by imagining two circles that intersect.
The closer the attachment, the more the other is a part of who I am. When the other (which could be a person, a thing, a place, or an event), is removed, a piece of me goes with it. I am forever changed. I am no longer the person I was. This may be portrayed by imagining one circle that is now incomplete as it is in the shape of a half moon.
This means that part of the grieving process is discovering who I am now.
I believe Thomas Attig’s How We Grieve: Relearning the World may assist in expanding our understanding in this regard. Attig explores ways in which we learn to be ourselves in the grieving process. When we experience loss, Attig notices how there are changes that transpire in our physical environment. An empty pillow is a reminder of the deceased person’s presence and absence. Home is gone because the last of our parents has died. The nose marks on the window are a reminder of a pet that no longer greets us. Not only are there changes in the physical environment, but Attig also mentions one experiences change in space and time. Prior to my dad’s death, I often called him shortly after Wheel of Fortune concluded, a little after 7:00 P.M. I would usually ask, “Did you watch Wheel of Fortune?” He replied, “Yes, I did! Did you?” We then spent a few moments discussing the show. In this way, the watching of Wheel of Fortune was a shared reality between my Dad and me. After I lost my Dad, I immediately became aware of a change in my schedule, and I have yet to return to watching the popular American game show. I am attempting to negotiate who I am in a routine that has been disrupted.
Attig also points out that when experiencing a loss, there are changes in relationships. Changes in relationships are more easily seen when we move to a new location because we are forced to fashion new relationships as we grieve the loss of the familiar. Changes in relationships are also seen after a person dies. I have heard it said at grief group that after a loss, other relationships tend to fall away as well, particularly when a spouse dies. The remaining spouse discovers the reality of living in a couples’ world, as she has now become a third-wheel. This prompts her to build different connections and/or become courageous enough to attend events alone to form new relationships. Thus, we can see in this depletion of old relationships how one loss triggers other losses. Rather than simply grieving one connection, we end up grieving many connections that had helped to shape us, pushing us to find who we are now in a new reality.
With all of this relearning, to use Attig’s word, the grieving person is metaphorically lost in a wilderness. Who am I? What is my role? Where do I belong? What is my compass? Where are the anchors that used to keep me stable? With each grief journey being unique, the bereaved discover the absence of a clear road map and the magnification of the experience of isolation. It is understandable then how this new adventure is anxiety producing. Some discover that their sleep and eating patterns are disrupted due to the anxiety. Some grief sojourners find themselves in the ER with panic attacks. Others are unable to concentrate, or they become increasingly forgetful. Is it any wonder that grieving people question if they are going crazy? However, when a bereaved person discovers that he is not the only one to have these types of grief responses and reactions, he may breathe an audible sigh of relief. While there may not be a Vulcan to fully share the grieving person’s reality, there is a limited shared reality that reduces the isolation and the loneliness.
My last post highlighted the longing for another to enter into the bereaved’s current painful reality to ease the loneliness. Unfortunately, no person is able to completely share the other’s reality, even for those highly skilled in empathy. It is impossible to truly feel and experience exactly what the other is feeling and experiencing. However, by drawing from Romans 8:26, I spoke of the reassurance available for Christ-followers as the Spirit fully shares our reality, entering our suffering with groanings while offering hope and healing through intercession. This is empathy expressed by the divine.
Previously I posted that the expression of empathy embraces both the similarities and the differences of the other’s feelings and experiences so that it shares the other’s suffering while being grounded in self in order to offer healing and hope. I continue this thought in this blog by discussing more fully a way for the church to participate in the Spirit’s ministry of empathy through suffering alongside and through intercession.
As Christ-followers, we believe we are participating in the divine life in that we are members of Christ’s body. As part of Christ’s body, or through this participation in the divine life, Christ-followers also participate in the sufferings of Christ and Christ shares in our sufferings, which is implied in 2 Corinthians (I am indebted to Lois Malcolm for this understanding). In 2 Corinthians, Paul not only incorporates several theological concepts from Second Isaiah (chapters 40-55), but also employs two significant words: pathêmata which means “affliction/suffering or suffer with” and paraklêsis which means “comfort or exhort.” Thus, in the reading of these words, the Corinthians would recall such passages as Christ (the Suffering Servant) who “took up our infirmities and carried our sorrows” (Is 53:4), “Comfort, comfort my people” (Is. 40:1), and “For the LORD comforts his people and will have compassion on his afflicted ones” (Is. 49:13c) [see Paul Barnett, The Second Epistle to the Corinthians]. These verses remind believers that Christ takes upon himself the sufferings of humanity, which means that Christ shares in the suffering of each believer. These verses also remind the Corinthians that comfort from God comes through Christ. Paul Barnett notes that the word “comfort” points to the suffering that the Corinthians are experiencing within a hostile environment as well as the hope of the future deliverance from that suffering [see Paul Barnett, The Second Epistle to the Corinthians, 71]. In other words, comfort implies one is suffering and offers hope for the elimination of that suffering, which corresponds to my comments on Romans 8 in my previous blog. Therefore, when Paul writes in verse 4, “that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves have received from God,” he is implicitly referencing the suffering of others and offering them a hope of deliverance from suffering.
Paul additionally writes in 1:5, “For just as the sufferings of Christ flow over into our lives, so also through Christ our comfort overflows.” Paul indicates here that when humanity participates in the divine life, entering into fellowship (koinonia) with God, it includes participating in the fellowship of Christ’s sufferings (see also Rom. 8:17; Phil. 3:10) as well as receiving the comfort of Christ. Thus, participation in the divine life involves suffering and comfort: each believer shares in the sufferings of Christ; Christ shares in the sufferings of each believer, and the believer receives comfort from Christ. With this in mind, since Christ has taken on each believer’s suffering and each believer is in Christ, theologically believers also share in each other’s sufferings. Since each believer participates in the divine life, and Christ shares in the sorrow of each believer, in the fellowship of believers in Christ, then, believers share in the sufferings of each other. In other words, by participating in the divine life, believers enter into solidarity with others in the body of Christ who are suffering. In addition, because Christ comforts and exhorts each one who is in the divine life, believers thereby are called to comfort and exhort one another. As referenced in my previous blog, Paul also suggests this occurs through intercession as evidenced when he says that the Corinthians joined in helping him through their prayers (1:11). This comfort is not simply to exist in theory for the Apostle Paul but in reality. Barnett writes points out that Paul was comforted by God through Titus to whom the Corinthians had given comfort. This, then, aided Paul to “comfort the Corinthians.” Barnett says, “Thus God’s ‘comfort’ comes full circle among his people” [Paul Barnett, The Second Epistle to the Corinthians (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdman’s, 1997), Oak Tree Software, 73].
Therefore, while the modern Western Pentecostal’s goal is often independence, Second Corinthians calls Pentecostals to enter into the suffering of others and share their reality of suffering through the provision of comfort and also through intercession. Thus, in the same way God is fully empathic by entering into our suffering and offers hope through the Spirit, so we as Christ-followers are to share in the reality of those who are grieving, albeit in a limited way, whether it be through comfort and/or prayers. In that way we are participating in God’s ministry to those who are grieving, providing an anchor in the Sea of Lostness.