As our nation commemorated the twentieth anniversary of the attacks of September 11, 2001, I listened to person after person tell their stories on television, social media, and in one-on-one conversations. Everyone who was alive on that awful day knows exactly where they were when the events unfolded, what they did, and how they felt. In listening to these stories, I realized that while we all experienced the same events, the depths of our experiences varied significantly.
I relived my own memories of watching the towers fall on television while working at the federal courthouse in St. Louis. My husband and I waited in line that afternoon so I could give blood, only to learn later that there wasn’t much need for blood. We joined our church family that night to pray and be in community to help ease the terror and uncertainty we felt. While I don’t normally compare one person’s pain to another’s, in these circumstances, I knew that my pain paled in comparison to many others. Then and twenty years later, I ached for the people who died, for those who escaped from the buildings, those who lost loved ones in the disaster, the children who never knew their fathers. Their heartbreaking experiences filled me with grief.
Because we lived through the events together as a collective, we all experienced some level of pain. And we easily believe others when they tell us their stories of 9/11 and the depth of their pain. Unfortunately, sometimes we tend to discount others’ pain when we haven’t experienced similar circumstances. When someone tells us of their experience with racism or sexism or other prejudice, we may not believe the person if we have not endured that type of injury. We may discount another’s pain when they tell us about a rejection they endured if they’re younger than us or if we don’t think the matter was as important as they did.
Sociologist Brené Brown said, “In order to empathize with someone’s experience you must be willing to believe them as they see it and not how you imagine their experience to be.” We need to resist the urge to think “it wasn’t that bad” or “they shouldn’t be that upset” when people trust us enough to share their pain. Jesus commanded, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Mark 12:31). We never doubt the depth or breadth of our own pain. And so, if we are to love others as we love ourselves, this love should include the acknowledgement of our neighbor’s pain as they experience it.
Thankfully, we don’t have to experience the same pain as another to support and empathize with them, we just need to believe them when they tell us about their pain. God believes us when we tell God about our pain. When we believe others, we not only connect more strongly with them, but we also follow God’s command to love his people.