I wrote this the fifth day after having surgery on my vocal cords, hoping to raise the pitch of my voice. I would have to refrain from talking for twelve days. Many lessons in life were coming together.
“Being a person is hard.”
The day after I told my daughter, Jackie, about my gender dysphoria, this was her primary reaction. For the dozens of people I told face-to-face, and then the hundreds who provided feedback when I went public online, Jackie’s reaction easily was the one that most stuck with me.
I like it because it is a realization about life, with an underlying empathy. What I heard Jackie say in those five words were, “No one gets off easy. We all have our own struggles and trials and hurts. I have mine and you, Dad, have yours. I heard you loud and clear last night, how deep your pain is. I feel for you.”
This is empathy, the finding of a connection with other humans which drives our caring for them.
Empathy feels. Its opposite is an “if you just tried harder” contempt.
Compassion cares. Its opposite is “I don’t care” indifference.
Affinity finds in the other an ally. Its opposite is “I don’t need this” animosity.
Affection forms and then fuels empathy and compassion. Its opposite is antipathy—lack of caring—which inflames hatred, which deepens into prejudice and bigotry and a sense that one is superior to another, which incites narrow-mindedness, unfairness, and separation from those who are different from us.
This came close to home in the 1990s when my sister, Sue’s, TMJ grew very serious. After surgery on her jaws she could not talk for eight weeks. The surgery did not provide the healing she sought. Her jaw pain has been awful all these years.
Sue has had to pick and choose when she can be with people. She and I are alike; she is super-friendly and loves talking with folks. But the more she talks, the more pain she has, and the more she has to deal with for days, even weeks after the event.
This caused her to become a bit of a loner. She avoided some family functions. And some of us were not always kind in our assessment, criticizing her for going to that thing but not to this one, of using her ailment to her advantage. Giving her the benefit of the doubt was seldom heard by those who had an opinion about her.
It was when I finally came beside Sue that I grew in my empathy for her. The closer we became, the better I heard her, the more I cared about her. Suffering must get personal, or else we will always work to avoid it.
My earliest lesson was my brother, Jim. Visiting him at Fort Custer, near Battle Creek, we kids were exposed to people whom society dubbed “monstrosities.” Our mother told us that they are no different from us, that we are no better than them. Her guidance absolutely formed me.
Suffering the loss of a child did the same. My compassion exploded for all people who suffer sudden, tragic loss. Then, as a pastor, as I ministered to folks in every death situation, I learned that it doesn’t matter how the loss occurred, but that all death stinks and hurts to our core, and we all need to feel for those who suffer this loss.
When I went public with my gender dysphoria, I finally could appreciate what my sister went through, longing to be understood, for people not to judge what they do not know, and not to decide for me how much pain I was in. One pastor, with whom I used to be very close, reacted this way when I told him that I had grown suicidal and truly feared that I would go insane: “Oh, come on. Surely, it isn’t that bad.”
You can bet that my sister never said anything like that. After Julie, she became my biggest ally.
These twelve days in which I cannot speak, friends are encouraging me with their stories. One woman explained how after serious dental work she was instructed that for six weeks she could not bend over, sneeze, drink through a straw, go under water (they had a pool), had to sleep sitting up, and could not blow her nose. A man told me of his late father-in-law who had suffered a stroke and became speechless. He got a spelling board, where he pointed out letters. Sometimes he got so frustrated trying to spell he would throw the board across the room.
I remember how often my mom would say why she watched soap operas. “When I see their problems, mine don’t look so bad.” Over the years, many people would quote this to me, but too often it was to downplay their situation. I would not let them do it. Their suffering was their suffering and they did not need to lessen it by comparing to someone supposedly suffering worse than them.
Who says they were suffering worse? Suffering differently, perhaps, but worse? Who decides that? Why do we keep score? Why are we always deciding for others what their situation is? Why are we so stinking judgmental?
The woman’s post-dental surgery situation, the man with the stroke, and being reminded of my sister’s post-surgery silence all help me keep my situation in perspective. For that, I am grateful the folks shared these with me.
The word which best describes people in their falling short of goodness and caring is the word “selfish.” Our inclination is to think of our self first, and when that becomes difficult because of suffering—whether our own or someone else’s—we are prone to avoid or remove the suffering. That is what breaks up many marriages, strains families, ends loads of friendships, results in some people killing themselves.
I know that the Lord doesn’t like suffering any more than I but, as I like to say, He is the ultimate lemonade-maker out of life’s lemons. Romans 5:3-4: “We also glory in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope.” While the next verse directly ties this to our trust in Jesus Christ, this is a truth which can be applied anywhere, for anyone: Embrace suffering so as to work good with it.
For the suffering/perseverance/character/hope track to come about, we need to directly deal with our suffering and the suffering of family and friends and community. If we slough it off, we gain nothing. And neither does anyone else gain anything from us.
Being a person is hard. It’s not only hard for me and for you, but it is hard for one hundred percent of us. I long for a world in which all people grasp this.
If we will suffer together, it will happen that we will care for each other. If we will not, the world we have is the one in which we will continue to clash.