“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.
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.