One of my favorite Easter stories is about a school pageant. The children were asked to choose the parts they’d like to play, and excitement mounted as roles were selected. Beyond the usual characters, Sammy and Johnny offered, together, to be the donkey. When it was Jimmy’s turn to choose, there weren’t many parts left, but he happily wanted to be the huge rock that sealed the tomb.
After the pageant was over and Jimmy and his family were on their way home, his mother asked him why he didn’t ask for a larger role in the pageant. Jimmy replied, “Are you kidding? Just think, mom! I’m the one who got to let Jesus out. What could be better than that?”
Our gospel reading for the Fifth Sunday of Lent is the story of the raising of Lazarus from the dead. The author reports that Lazarus had already been in the tomb for four days, and when Jesus asked that the stone be rolled away, there was concern about decomposition and the resulting stench. Nonetheless, they do as Jesus asks, and with a dramatic command, “Lazarus, come out,” the dead man comes out of the tomb, still wrapped in traditional burial cloths. In this powerful and miraculous way, Jesus shows that he has power even over death.
This gospel passage is powerful enough in itself, but it also leads me to reflect on the many ways in which each of us can get trapped in our own little tombs, focusing on our own problems, fears and concerns in such a way that they paralyze us from seeing anything else.
A story is told of a man in a hospital waiting room. His wife was giving birth to their first child, and he was very anxious. He paced back and forth in the waiting room for what seemed like hours while his wife was in labor. Finally, the nurse came out and announced that his wife had just given birth to a healthy child. In response, he quickly asked, “Is it a boy or a girl?” “The baby is a girl,” she answered. “Thank heavens!” the man replied with an obvious show of great relief on his face. “I am so glad it is a girl instead of a boy because when she grows up and has her first child, she won’t have to go through what I just experienced.”
The challenge for this man, and indeed for all of us, is to make our world bigger by not being locked up in ourselves and our own emotions. One way to do this is to grow in empathy. Empathy involves the ability to emotionally understand what another person is experiencing. While compassion and sympathy are similar to empathy, they tend to give us a more passive connection, as if we are on the outside looking in. Empathy, by contrast, strives to put us in the other person’s shoes in a more active attempt to understand the other from the inside.
Experts point out that there are different kinds of empathy, for example:
- Affective empathy—the ability to understand another person’s emotions, feeling concern for his or her well-being
- Somatic empathy—a sort of physical reaction in response to what someone else is feeling
- Cognitive empathy—being able to understand another person’s mental stateExperiencing empathy may bring about some positive benefits, including:
- Building social connections with others, by being able to respond appropriately in social situations
- Learning to control your own emotions; managing what you are feeling without feeling overwhelmed
- Promoting helping behaviors when you feel the needs of others
- And finally, the experts also indicate that there are certain reasons as to why people may lack empathy, among them:
- Cognitive biases—for example, attributing other peoples’ failures to internal characteristics, while blaming their own shortcomings on external factors
- Dehumanizing victims—thinking that those who are different do not think and feel in the same way, are fundamentally different
- Blaming victims—when someone else goes through a terrible experience, blaming the victim for his or her circumstances. Thinking the world is basically a fair and just place, people get what they deserve.It is helpful to note that the arts can help us to build a sense of empathy. For example, one of the comic book series that I enjoyed as a child was Little Archie, which was aimed at elementary school children. One memorable character was Ambrose Pipps, who was a small, shy boy with, as I recall, a big floppy red hat that covered most of his face. While Archie was popular and had a group of faithful friends, Ambrose was the outsider who would constantly be made fun of. Ambrose was repeatedly bullied and exploited by the more popular kids in the neighborhood.I remember being absolutely outraged by the way in which Ambrose was treated and, in my mind, he became a kind of popular “cause”. For example, on the bus we rode each day to school, the boys and girls generally sat far apart from each other. I noticed that there was one girl who wore glasses and looked sad all the time. Usually, she was made to sit alone on the bus. Well, one day, much to the shock of my friends, I chose to sit next to her. My dad had brought home a Payday candy bar from a machine at work, and that morning I gave it to that girl. You see, the way Ambrose Pipps was treated had aroused my sense of empathy. I could imagine how the rejected girl felt. Early on in life, I was shown how to break out of the tomb of cold indifference toward other human beings.As we face the coronavirus epidemic, many of us may be feeling fear and anxiety, either for ourselves or someone we care about. Because this virus is new, and even the experts seem to be struggling with how to come to terms with it, fear is an understandable response. The challenge is how to deal with this new reality of social distancing without it becoming a tomb of fear.I watched a psychologist on line who offered some valuable advice. She stated that being forced to stay apart can lead to feelings of depression, sleep deprivation, confusion, anger, fear, frustration and boredom. Here are the steps she suggests we take to help us cope with these feelings:
- Get clear facts from the Center for Disease Control and from local health officials, but don’t do a “deep dive” into the facts, which can only add to the stress. Clear information can help to deal with the crisis; obsessing about it doesn’t help.
- Connect with the people you normally associate or work with through social media. Keep your support network alive with relatives and friends. Making a list of people you would like to talk with will help. Using the phone for a conversation may be better and more personal than an email or text. You can also use this time to catch up on emails that need a thoughtful response.
- Maintain a schedule/structure/routine. Get up and go to bed at the usual times. Set goals for work and personal tasks. Set up a schedule of activities in 1-2 hour blocks. Build in breaks and times to enjoy meals.
- Pay attention to your body’s “check engine” light. What are the signs of stress that we need to pay attention to. Respond in kind and gentle ways to yourself. Get some physical exercise. Get moving.
- Keep things in perspective. Why are we being inconvenienced? Why is our usual world being turned upside down? Because we are part of the whole, and we need to work together to keep those we love and ourselves safe. To these wonderful suggestions, I would add that taking time for prayer, reading Scripture, meditating, writing down fears, keeping a journal of things to be grateful for is also a great help. If there is anyone who has the power to break us out of tombs, it is the Lord. He did it with Lazarus, he can do it with us. Also, everything I have noted about empathy helps. When I am thinking of other people who are being affected by this pandemic, and when I take steps to help others cope, then I’m breaking out of the tomb of self-preoccupation. We have started to get calls from people who are losing their jobs, facing evictions, and running out of food. Around the world, there are people being affected by this pandemic in areas where there is little or no medical care. If what we are going through teaches nothing else, it reminds us that we are part of one human family, susceptible to the same diseases, living with similar fears, and turning to each other for comfort and strength. Having a healthy sense of empathy can help us to break out of the tomb of the false self, preoccupied only with ourselves, and finding our true selves, created by and for love.
- Recently, several members of our parish came together for a spiritual retreat, called “Holy Week in a day”. Step by step, we attempted to come to a deeper, experiential awareness of the events of Holy Thursday, Good Friday, Holy Saturday, and Easter Sunday. I offered a reflection on the experience of Holy Saturday, the in-between time, the movement from crucifixion to resurrection. I compared it to the announcement that someone we love is pregnant, and then waiting for the birth. Or being tested for a medical concern, and then waiting for the results of the tests. Holy Saturday, of course, is the time that Jesus lay in a tomb. Is that not the case with us and this corona virus pandemic? It is as if our world is slowly being crucified, and we do not know how it will play out. We hope and pray that an Easter will come, sooner or later, but we are stuck in this in-between. As I reflect on this tomb that we are in, what gives me some strength and comfort is that Jesus Christ knows what it is like to be in a tomb. Even here, in the cold and the dark, he is with us. When we are shivering with fear, he knows what that’s like. When we wonder why this is happening, where it will all end, he knows what that’s like. When we feel alone as if in quarantine, he knows what that’s like. Even in this tomb, our God is with us. And so, we wait for Easter, with patience and hope.