The Painful Path to Empathy

A Christmas Carol was the first of five Christmas books written by Charles Dickens. The Haunted Man and the Ghost’s Bargain, a lesser-known work, was the last of that series.

300px-Hauntedman_front_1848The Haunted Man, Professor Redlaw, is haunted by his sorrowful past. The only redeeming feature of his youth was a sister who died. The memories are continually brought before him by a Phantom who offers him relief. When he allowed the Spectre to cancel his remembrances, Redlaw made a surprising discovery. Not only did his memory of sorrow and wrong leave him, so did any element of softness and caring for others. Even worse, that gift was passed on to others around him with similar consequences.

Unaffected by this desire to forget sorrow is Milly Swidger who had lost her only child. A sweet simple woman, Milly tells her husband, “I am happy in the recollection of it…All through life, it seems by me, to tell me something. For poor neglected children, my little child pleads as if it were alive, and had a voice I knew, with which to speak to me. When I hear of youth in suffering or shame, I think that my child might have come to that, perhaps, and that God took it from me in His mercy…that even when my little child was born and dead but a few days, and I was weak and sorrowful, and could not help grieving a little, the thought arose, that if I tried to lead a good life, I should meet in Heaven a bright creature, who would call me, Mother!”

Observing her unusual application of loss, Redlaw comes to himself, praying, “O Thou who through the teaching of pure love, hast graciously restored me to the memory which was the memory of Christ upon the Cross, and of all the good who perished in His cause, receive my thanks, and bless her!”

At the end of the story, Dickens suggests, “that the Ghost was but the representation of his gloomy thoughts, and Milly the embodiment of his better wisdom.”

I have seen Dickens’ moral carried out in everyday life. Many kindhearted people attempt to sympathize with those in sorrow and pain, but it is those with similar experiences who make the largest contributions to healing. A mother who has had a stillborn child can comfort another mother like no one else can. Military families who have sent their loved ones to war can understand each other’s needs – often knowing what to do without being asked. A parent who has a wayward child can sit with another parent with a unique bonding and empathy. Those who have lost their jobs in an economic downturn are able to help each other in a special way. Homeless people can band together to become a community. And on it goes. People who have “been there, done that” are those who understand the most.

Christians have a Lord who empathizes with our sorrows and pains. His suffering was a choice – so we knew that He could understand, empathize and give guidance and comfort when comfort is needed.

Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our troubles, so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves have received from God. For just as the sufferings of Christ flow over into our lives, so also through Christ our comfort overflows (2 Corinthians 1:3-5 NIV).

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