Once upon a time when I was ill and quite isolated, the most common thing I heard from family and friends was, “I would have called but I didn’t want to wake you up.” Though true, I think sometimes it also meant, “I would have called but I didn’t know what to say.” It resulted in long periods when I didn’t see or hear from anyone, and it was lonely. It was sometimes very, very lonely.
Later, as online chat became something I could engage in, I loved social media because it allowed me to not be the sick person unless I chose to reveal that information. I could enter into a conversation with people that was about things other than how I was feeling. Further, if I happened to be awake at 2:00 a.m., there was a good chance someone, somewhere was too. For an hour or so, I could be “normal.” It was no small thing.
These days? I don’t know what to say. I’m overwhelmed by the use of social media to talk about war and rumours of war, and there aren’t enough cute kitten pictures in the world to quell that for me. I don’t know what to do, and I struggle with empathy fatigue. I feel it, and I don’t want to.
I especially hate it when it crosses over into my every day life. As much as I am loving this Christmas season–and I am, so much–I am also feeling guilty for loving it. I shouldn’t because I’ve had a couple of very difficult Christmases. This isn’t one of those, it is a season of calm and joy for me. It is not that way, however, for people I care about. A close friend is celebrating the life of her father today, and another close friend is saying similar farewells to someone dear to him. Other friends are experiencing life changes that bring about their own particular challenges to this Christmas.
Grief has laid claim to Advent. It always does, it seems, and perhaps it is this knowledge of grief that makes this time of hope for peace so special.
Last week, a woman politely declined an offer of cookies because she is observing a religious fast. She smiled at my fumbling of her observance. Then, with pain in her eyes, she whispered, “you know, the bombing in Egypt?” I deflected the conversation because–well, I don’t have a good reason, to be honest. I don’t know how to fix it, and I wish I did. Perhaps then, it isn’t a case of empathy fatigue, but a case of being overwhelmed and not knowing where to place my efforts. Her beautiful, kind face now represents the persecuted to me. She has been directly affected by that event, and I feel the weight of her sorrow.
Yesterday, we baked new cookies to offer to the woman. After researching what we could about her faith, we chose a recipe we hoped would fit within the confines of her fast. This morning I took them to her, with a letter apologizing for minimizing her pain. I wrote it down because I didn’t want to bumble it again.
“Oh, thank you” she said, “Merry Christmas.”
I hesitated, and then said. “It is for Christmas. And it’s for more than Christmas. I hope you’ll understand.”
I left her to read my note in privacy. Later, she reached out and trembling, held my hands. “Thank you,” she whispered. The tears in her eyes brought tears to mine.
Perhaps I can not solve Aleppo or Egypt or even some things much closer to my own circle of influence. I can’t remove my friends’ grief. But this I can do: listen, seek understanding, and offer friendship here in my community, with my people.
I still don’t know what to say. Quite possibly, that’s the point.