Few people willingly enter into unrequired pain or hardship. But some brave, vulnerable souls kneel in the dust and dirt and chaos and allow themselves to look into the eyes of a child, who they may never see again, and love them. Allow grimy fingers to grab their sleeves and rip at the edges of their heart, let the broken story of a mother, who has lost her child to violence, lodge in their chest. To let the heartbreak and pain of another rest on their shoulders.
These ones, these unsung heroes that carry stories of pain with them – so that the world might catch a glimpse of humanity and remember its soul – these people who carry that calling are my heroes.
They do what most people spend their lives running from. They step into the mess, the hurt.
People have an almost universal reaction to pain, be it physical, emotional, or mental: avoid it. This can be done by suppressing it or numbing it or ignoring it. Sadly, a lot of us choose a combination of all three. The average adult spends approximately an hour a day on Netflix and just over two hours daily on social media. We numb and ignore with drugs and alcohol and constant inundation of noise — just so that we don't have to pause for a moment and truly be present in the pain.
It’s easier that way, to live in blindness to the pain of our fellow humanity. I’m guilty of it myself, because the suffering we see is overwhelming. And drowning in a tidal wave of sorrow is no way to live.
So, we shut down and shut out.
Sure, we may shout at the TV or leave a comment on Facebook or read the latest horrifying headline (we don’t want to be like ‘those people’ and bury our head in the sand after all, we pride ourselves on staying ‘informed’) or give a quick donation to ease our conscience.
But what good is information without action? And what good is action without empathy?
Reading an article about the suffering of another or getting angry about the 21 million people who are trafficked each year, doesn’t do much except potentially cloud your day. Unless you take action. And that action doesn’t have to be big. Even small actions can be life-changing. (To read more about this concept, check out the book The Compound Effect.)
Not everyone is called to ground zero. My sister has been – she’s traveled to some of the most desperate places on the planet, to be one of the few female humanitarian photojournalists, to listen to stories, to let people be heard, to present their picture with dignity and respect in a culture of sensationalism and exploitation, in situations that often demoralize and dehumanize. To hug children and crystalize their life in a photograph. To respect them enough to meet them and speak with them. To dig deeper than the headline and to honor them with her sweat and words and tears. To love them enough to carry their stories with her wherever she goes. To wrestle with the pain of their trauma. To let their lives bleed into hers.
But not everyone has that calling. Not all of us are called to kneel in the dirt in the slums in Bangladesh.
But all of us are called to kneel.
We are called to pray, to empathize, to put ourselves in someone else’s shoes for a moment and try to see the world with understanding and gentleness.
If you have not been called to go, support those who do. Be Aaron holding up the arms of Moses. Be the heart and hands and support for those on the front lines. Maybe you are not called to adopt a child – all well and good – but see how you can love and encourage families who are. Maybe you are not called to be a stay-at-home mom. Find ways to support the women who are. Maybe you are not called to counsel at-risk kids, and that’s ok. But see how you can support the men and women who are.
Make it your mission to be love in action.
In that same breath, set good boundaries and don’t let yourself burn out on empathy. As women, it’s easy to feel like we are holding it all together, that everyone is depending on us. You are not everyone’s savior. You are not made to support the whole world. So choose a couple of areas to invest in, a couple of people to support, and start small. Burnout often comes when we take on too much or take on other people’s problems as our own. (The book The Best Yes is a great resource, if you’re like me, and have a hard time saying no.) Choose empathy, not internalizing.
If you are brave enough, listen. If you are brave enough, ask questions. If you are brave enough, remember. If you are brave enough, take action.
As Brenè Brown said in her book Dare to Lead: “Empathy is not connecting to an experience. Empathy is connecting to the emotions that underpin an experience.”
So, don’t read the story and move on. Don’t numb the pain of a poignant photograph by scrolling past it. Don’t think that just reading the headlines or donating is enough. Pause for a moment. Kneel for a moment and accept that brief but holy experience of empathizing, bearing one another’s burdens, and weeping with those who weep.
Let their story bury deep in your bones. Let their eyes move you to pray. Let the reality of suffering move you to action.
Because, in a culture that is divided in a thousand different ways, we are all called to cultivate a heart of empathy.
Ellery Frost believes in celebrating joy and creating connection through food, art, and stories. She's a passionate world traveler and writer who partners with nonprofits and humanitarian organizations to bring their stories to life. You can find her at elleryfrost.com and follow her love affair with food on Instagram @therealpersnicketychef.