How close is too close? {The Proximity of Pain}

“I can’t imagine.”

I saw the words again recently in response to someone’s pain.

I don’t think anyone means to offend or hurt when they say those three simple words. The heart behind them is often “I have no idea what that’s like or how to comfort you.” But sometimes they come out sounding more like “I don’t want to think about what that would be like. I can’t–and won’t–identify with your pain.”

I’m guilty of it. Thinking that the words will soften the situation because if I can’t imagine then whatever it is must be tragic.

But I’ve used the words to distance myself from tragedies. (The greater tragedy is that the words have been spoken to me in the midst of personal crisis. Shouldn’t I know better?) I’ve given myself permission to go about my life without thinking about those who suffer. (Until I, myself, suffer.)

I can’t imagine. Or I won’t.

The difference is slim.

I’m not a great conversationalist, at least not when I’m on a mission to complete a task. I’m not likely to chitchat on the phone if I have a specific reason for calling. I usually try to get to the point quickly because I’m wired to value tasks more than people, I guess. Give me a to-do list, and I’m on it with enthusiasm. Ask me to manage relationships with the same enthusiasm and I’m overwhelmed to the point of inaction.

But God is working on me.

A few months ago, I delivered a meal to a couple who are battling the wife’s cancer. I don’t know them well, but I’m generally eager to make food and take it to those who are in need of some relief. I was ready to drop off the food and leave, but the husband kept me at the door, talking about his wife’s progress and the treatment schedule. It’s not that I wasn’t interested; it’s just that I don’t like to pry. I figure people get asked the same questions all the time and maybe they get tired of talking about it.

I listened. Maybe that’s all he needed.

A month or so later this would happen to me again. I was planning a funeral meal for another family in the church. I had a question for the daughter about meat and cheese. She ended up talking to me about the shock and pain of losing her mother unexpectedly. It was another of those situations where I didn’t know the family well. I listened, having no intelligent response.

I have little firsthand experience with things like cancer and death, so I think my questions will somehow be offensive or silly.

Maybe I don’t need better questions. Maybe all I need is to know how to listen.

We’ve been watching the TV show “About a Boy” which is about a boy, yes, but also about a man, Will Freeman, who lives a pretty self-centered lifestyle until he meets the boy, Marcus. Until recently, I didn’t know this was also a book. So, I read the story, and one passage in particular grabbed my attention. Marcus, a 12-year-old with problems at home and school, starts hanging out at Will’s bachelor pad, and this is what Will is thinking:

Will had spent his whole life avoiding real stuff. He liked watching real stuff and he liked listening to (songwriters) singing about real stuff but he’d never had real stuff sitting on his sofa before. (p. 117)

Real stuff is easy to read about or listen to or watch, but when it sits in your living room crying or talks to you over a cup of coffee, it’s hard. And uncomfortable. I’m not always ready to invite the real stuff into my real life. Because real stuff is messy and I have a hard enough time keeping my own space tidy.

What would have happened, though, if no one had let me in when I was a mess?

That, I can’t imagine.

“The Lord is close to the brokenhearted,” the psalmist writes, and I begin to see the error of my ways.

I keep distance between me and those whose hearts are breaking out of fear that my heart might break, too. It’s not as if tragedy is contagious, so why would I rather not immerse myself in someone else’s trouble? Am I afraid to get too close to cancer or death or loss or sadness because it might rub off? I do tend to be swayed by the emotions of others, and there are days my emotional cup is already too full.

Elisabetta Foco | Creative Commons | via unsplash

Elisabetta Foco | Creative Commons | via unsplash

But what if I’m doing myself a disservice? What if by closing my eyes to tragedy, by holding suffering at arm’s length, I’m distancing myself from God?

If the Lord is close to the brokenhearted, is it possible that I might get a glimpse of God if I would take a step closer?

For too many years, Phil and I kept others out of our pain. Not everyone, but most people. So it’s different to be letting people in again. The wounds we’ve covered over are open again and healing this time, and sometimes that means I’m raw with my feelings, emotions, and reactions. But the difference is: I’m letting people in to those painful spots. Instead of covering them up, I’m exposing them. And it’s not always pretty.

There are days I think it would be easier to live independently. To avoid the hurt that comes from being in community. In marriage, in friendships, in church, hurts are inevitable because all of those relationships involve people. And people are messy. (Guilty as charged.)

But there’s a kind of pain that wounds further and a kind of pain that heals, and I’m starting to learn the difference.

We are grateful to be in community with people who care enough about us to challenge us to do things we don’t always want to do, to help us heal and become better people. Is it painful to hear someone you care about say, “You know, you might want to think about that differently” or “Maybe that wasn’t the best decision”? Yes, it is.

But it is pain that heals if I let it.

What if Jesus had decided to keep his distance?

Our sermon series at church is in the book of Luke right now and it is hard not to notice how close to everyone Jesus is. He sits and talks and touches and listens and people are always crowding around him. He could have healed people from afar, and sometimes He did, but sometimes He purposely touches people to heal them.

Sometimes I wonder if He could have saved us if He’d never left heaven. Did He have to become human and live in our dirty, messy world? I don’t know if He had to but I know that He did.


And He didn’t keep His distance from those in pain and suffering. He became our pain and suffering. He gave His whole self for our salvation. He entered our world and identified with our pain. He embraced us when we were unworthy. He brought healing and restoration.

But it cost Jesus His life.

It was painful, yes, but it was pain that heals.

And I forget that when I hold the bread in my hands–His body broken for me, and drink of the cup–His blood shed for me.

Broken body. Shed blood. Is there ever an instance when those actions don’t hurt?

I am human. (Shocking, right?) So my capacity to enter someone else’s pain, to identify with suffering and draw near to tragedy is limited.

But it’s not impossible.

And instead of avoiding suffering and tragedy and pain, I want to see Jesus in it.

If the Lord is near to the brokenhearted, then this is what I know: He is near to me in my pain and I can see Him in it. And I just might see a different side of Him when I embrace the brokenhearted, too.

Will I dare to imagine?

2 thoughts on “How close is too close? {The Proximity of Pain}

  1. Pingback: » How close is too close? {The Proximity of Pain}

  2. Pingback: What we really need when we’re suffering | Living Echoes

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