Stronger than Sympathy

nestWhat does it mean to help someone who’s depressed or in distress? Do we join them? Or keep our distance?

One approach is illustrated in the cartoon pictured. Helping here means making a nest for the hurting person, withdrawing with them and keeping them company in the dark. It breaks down the wall between “sufferer” and “carer” – and that’s a good thing. It’s also a lovely picture of empathy and understanding. But is it enough?

Joining the depressed person in their pit pictures part of Christ’s love – after all, He comes to earth and shares in our suffering. But –  it’s not the end goal. Jesus doesn’t remain with us in the dark. He rises up to bring us back into the light and back into community. By climbing into the pit and staying there, are we really pointing to Him?

A second view of “helping”… this time from a friend who lives overseas. Like most of us, she has her own struggles (including mental health). She’s also a valued, productive and essential member of her church family.

Recently she met with a leader from her church. This leader doesn’t know about her struggles and they stumbled upon the subject of pastoral care. How, said the leader, can we help “them?”  Those who are “stuck?” The broken, the addicted, the messed-up. How do we draw them into community? And come down to where they are?

Again, there are many things to celebrate here – for example, the leader’s concern for those who struggle and her desire to help.  Nonetheless, the conversation left my friend feeling fraudulent, uncomfortable, depressed about her own struggles and unable to share them. Either she was someone who could help and be useful – or she was someone who needed help and needed to be drawn in. Either she was with “us” (the spiritually sorted) or “them” (the mentally ill).

At this point I think with longing of the cartoon above. Instead of “them” and “us,” surely we want to dive under the duvet together? But –  will we ever come out again? Or will we make our nest in the dark for good?

Is there a third way in helping? Can we abolish patronising talk of “them” and “us” but can we also hold onto the hope that life exists beyond the darkness?

At Christmas Jesus broke down the wall between “them” and “us”. He joined us in our pit and on Good Friday He took on the darkness of our despair. He did it all for us. This means that He really is genuinely with us in our despair. But on Easter Sunday, He rose up again into the light. This means that we are genuinely with Him in His glory.

Christ-like helping can take a thousand different forms and depends a lot on circumstances. But it’s surely about two movements rather than just one. Yes, it’s about demolishing the walls between “them” and “us” and joining our friends in their sadness. But it’s also about building a bridge between the nest and the rest.

It’s the approach of this cartoon – but with one final frame. Having joined the friend in the dark, a true happy ending would be the hurt person learning to trust the friend, take their hand and rejoin the world. The wall demolished, but the bridge rebuilt. The cross and the resurrection. Empathy – and genuine hope.


3 thoughts on “Stronger than Sympathy

  1. Beautiful. I want to be in the nest right now, but you are so right, Emma. Thanks again for your encouraging and carefully presented thoughts.

  2. Brilliantly put. I saw that cartoon a while ago and loved it, but also felt like there was something missing; you have articulated it so well!

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