“Keep me as the apple of your eye; hide me in the shadow of your wings.” (Psalm 17:8)

My very first memory is of the day Elvis Presley died.

I stood in the kitchen of our little mobile home. My mother sat, legs crossed, at the small laminate-topped table a few paces away, talking on the phone. The cord coiled from the handset in her hand across the table in pretty loops to the wall-mounted phone body.

My mother rested her elbows on the table and began to cry—she had loved Elvis as a teenager, and now he was dead. I do not remember how I felt about seeing her cry. I only remember that I padded out of the kitchen, got a box of tissue, and brought it to the table. I handed a tissue to her and took one for myself. I climbed onto a stool beside her, and I cried, too.

My very first memory is of empathy. Of feeling another’s pain and sharing it. The walls between me and the rest of the world have always been very thin, and very near, more like a membrane than a wall, and resting against my skin, or inside it, rather than outside myself.

I tried to explain this to my husband, who is highly empathetic but somehow does not confuse his own pain with others’. “It’s like I’m so present with them that part of my soul leaves my body and goes to theirs.” I’d had six or eight conversations with friends and acquaintances that morning at church, and I was exhausted. “So now I have to reel all those parts of myself back in.”

“So basically you’re Voldemort,” Doug said.

I laughed. “Basically.” 

The comparison with Voldemort was funny—because he was a heartless monster, and I’m a heart-full mama—but it was also kind of apt. I really do feel like my soul escapes the bonds of my body, not through violence, but through identification. In a small but very real way, I become the other person.

After that conversation with Doug, I realized anew that he does not internalize others’ pain the way I do. His walls are high and strong and far away. There is space between him and everyone else, and this buffer makes him strong. Life doesn’t gut-punch him at every turn the way it gut-punches me. Others’ pain is filtered through all that space and by the time it reaches him, it’s only an echo of itself, rather than the full one-two uppercut that knocks me to my knees.

It’s only been in the past few years that I have begun to see that I have a buffer, too. His name is Jesus, and everything that reaches me has to pass through Him first. I have known this for a long time, but I have only begun to live it recently.

By live it, I mean practice it. I mean visualizing a wall around myself. My dear friend Susan suggested I hold my hands at arms’ length and build my wall there, beyond the reach of my fingers. Sometimes, when the pain of the world starts to press too close, I physically hold up my hands and push them out as far as I can. Then I imagine Jesus standing there at the edge of my fingertips. His arms are outstretched, as they were on the cross, and He is smiling at me with love. I am the apple of His eye, and He is a shield about me.

I take several deep breaths, praying the Jesus Prayer, that millennia-old breath-prayer for mercy, and I inhale His grace, His strength. Sometimes it takes many minutes for the press of the world’s clamor to recede, but it does recede, ebbing away from me till I stand alone in the center of myself with Jesus still looking at me with His eyes of love.

KCI_Quote_JesusShield_GT_Pinterest

Often I don’t catch the clamor or the pain till it’s already taken up residence in my chest or gut. When that happens, and I suddenly become aware that I’m feeling anxious or afraid, I simply place my hand wherever the anxiety or fear is sitting in my body. I imagine that I’m grabbing hold of it, and I hand it to Jesus—who is standing arms outstretched before me—and ask Him to do with it as He pleases.

One of the fundamental premises of Christianity—and of most every religious and wisdom tradition and of cognitive-behavioral therapy, too—is that we can control our responses to the stimuli of our life. We are not fated to live in anxiety and fear. We are not fated at all. We have power.

I am learning, finally, after 40 years on this planet, to take hold of that Power. His name is Jesus, and He died that I might live. And I want to live. I want the fullness of life that He promised. I want the Power from on high that He promised. I want the radically transformed heart that He promised.

Since beginning to let go—literally let go—of the anxiety and fear that so chronically plague me, I have also begun to see more of that fullness of life. Since beginning to hold the world at arms’ length and let Jesus love it and feel its pain rather than thinking that I have to, I have begun to experience a bit of His power—the power to control my response to the world, rather than reeling out of control in response to it.

I’ve only begun to let go and let God, as the bumper sticker says, but even that beginning has manifested huge changes, a huge release from fear, and what is more, a sense that I can handle my life, that I have power on my side to effect that radically transformed heart I so desire.

I still feel others’ pain, and often feel it deeply. I probably always will. It seems that is how God made me. But now I can cope with that pain rather than cowering in fear of it. I cope by giving it to Jesus and keeping my eyes on Him, and my soul in the shadow of His wings.

K. C. Ireton / Posts / Blog
K.C. Ireton is the author of two books and the mother of four children. An avid reader, she believes that a day without books is a day without meaning or joy. She also likes food, especially when her husband prepares it. Vive le weekend!
  • Peggy

    Thank you for sharing this. I have always “joked” that I was a sponge. People would share their hurts with me and walk away feeling better and I would have soaked it up and carried it with me and feel the deep weight of it. I go through seasons of feeling this weight. Your words are a great reminder and encouragement that I am to empathize and love deeply but their pain is not mine to carry, at least alone. Jesus is the one who carries all who ask. Thank you for baring your soul. It is refreshing and appreciated.

    October 7th, 2015 8:41
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    • Kimberlee Conway Ireton
      http://kimberleeconwayireton.net

      Peggy, yes, that sponge image definitely applies! I do believe that God gives some of us the gift (my friend Ann calls it “a severe gift”) of being able, in a very real and almost literal way, to bear others’ burdens, but He does not intend for us to bear them alone. We do not have to; indeed, we cannot. My practice continues to be to take that pain and hand it to Jesus, trusting that He knows what to do with it far better than I do–and that He has the power to do it. Thank you for reading today. I pray that as you soak up others’ pain, you can let it run right back out of you into the wide river of God’s mercy and grace.

      October 7th, 2015 11:05
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  • Jolene Underwood (@Faith_Eyes)
    http://joleneunderwood.com

    Kimberlee- I loved, loved, loved this post! Thank you for sharing it and opening the door in a gentle way to vulnerability & empathy.

    October 7th, 2015 9:07
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  • Jody Collins
    Jody Collins
    http://threewaylight.blogspot.com/

    That is a beautiful picture, the hands as a portal through which pain must pass, but not before meeting with Jesus first.
    It is a privilege to read about your journey, friend.

    October 7th, 2015 9:25
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    • Kimberlee Conway Ireton
      http://kimberleeconwayireton.net

      Jody, it is a privilege to get to walk this journey with you, friend. Thank you for witnessing and encouraging.

      October 7th, 2015 11:06
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  • Amy
    Amy
    http://sunsteepeddays.wordpress.com

    Yes! I have a propensity to confuse others’ pain with my own as well. I’ve never thought of Jesus as my buffer, but this helps greatly to explain what happens when I come and drop it at his feet. I’m saving these words for times when everything seems muddled, and for a small daughter who seems to be leaning the same way. (I’m reminded of a Sara Groves song: “Baby I’m afraid you’re a lot like me / You can’t help feeling everything…”) Thank you.

    October 7th, 2015 10:41
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    • Kimberlee Conway Ireton
      http://kimberleeconwayireton.net

      I’d never thought of Jesus as my buffer until this year–or if I had, it was only in isolated moments. Now it’s becoming a habit (I hope!) to hand the pain over to Him, to return it to its proper place: in His hands. I pray you are able to help your daughter learn to cope with this gift–it is a gift, but a severe one, and we need help to bear it without being overwhelmed by it. (But I suspect that’s probably true of most giftedness?)

      October 7th, 2015 11:11
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  • Patty
    http://Patty

    I too am an empathizer and I like to visualize giving my cares over to Jesus. He says to cast our cares on Him. Thank you for this message!

    October 7th, 2015 14:39
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    • Kimberlee Conway Ireton
      http://kimberleeconwayireton.net

      Patty, yes, Jesus is able to carry all our burdens…and the ones that aren’t ours that we take on anyway. I have to constantly give them back to Him, constantly remember that He is God and I am not.

      October 7th, 2015 19:45
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  • Diana Trautwein
    http://www.dianatrautwein.com

    Oh, well done, Kimberlee! I love the image your friend gave you and I have a hunch you are one of those HSP folk – highly sensitive people. It’s a real deal and sounds a whole lot like what you’ve described here. The Jesus prayer is a powerful tool, along with deep breathing and the kind of visualization your friend suggested. Good work, friend. Good work.

    October 7th, 2015 19:37
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    • Kimberlee Conway Ireton
      http://kimberleeconwayireton.net

      Diana, you ALWAYS encourage my heart. Thank you for your cheering here. Having a vivid imagination has often been a downfall for me, but using it in this way–to see Jesus holding the space around me, looking at me with love–has been one of the most life-giving uses I’ve ever put it to 🙂

      October 7th, 2015 19:50
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