Some people flee from those who are depressed. Others feel compelled to do their best to lift their spirits. Did you react the same way as C.S. Lewis to the suffering of others?
Recently I’ve had the privilege of sharing the anguish of several people who see no solution to their personal challenges. In truth, even though I sincerely believe “with God, all things are possible,” it is likely that these particular dilemmas will trouble these people the remainder of their lives.
Some people are “fixers,” or problem-solvers. They want to step in, quickly resolve the difficulty, and return to their normal routine as soon as possible. When faced with an intransigent challenge, they typically get called away by other matters, or they fade into the background.
There is a sort of spectrum when it comes to offering comfort to people. At one end, we have the people who offer insincere clichés like “I’m so sorry.” These remarks are often an automatic response and the only thing the speaker is “sorry” about is having their time “wasted” by the litany of another’s suffering.
Better than these liars, are the pretenders. They actually do feel sorry for the person when they say so. Only, they’re not sorry enough to actually devote another moment’s thought to their pain. They are hypocrites, because if they really understood what the word sorrow means, they would understand that it doesn’t evaporate into the mists six mere heartbeats after it is experienced.
Most people fall further along the spectrum, where we might place sympathy and empathy. Although the words are frequently used interchangeably, this site offers a concise definition of their differences.
In essence, when we are empathetic, we identify more intimately with the sufferer. It seems to me that empathy, often viewed as a sort of super-sympathy, is not necessarily the mark of a better sympathizer. Sometimes it corresponds to our own life experiences. For example, while my mother was still living I could readily sympathize with those who had lost their own. After my mom’s untimely death, I found myself naturally, and sometimes intensely, empathizing with their grief.
Genuine sympathy is a precious commodity. But it must grant higher honor to that form of consolation that puts our emotional concern into actual action. The specific actions are less important than the fact that we have physically placed the needs of the other ahead of our own. They might consist of attending to someone’s responsibilities while they are incapacitated, or simply holding a hand for long hours in a silent bedside vigil. The form matters little; the essence of the gift is everything. It is nothing less than love in action.
Lewis’ Compassionate Heart
Lewis constantly offered consolation to those with whom he corresponded. Our last post included an excellent example of this. What made his brief expressions of concern so powerful was not their eloquence. It was their sincerity. As we read the words we have no doubt that Lewis meant them. What’s more, when he said that he was praying for someone, he truly was.
Lewis also incorporated moving scenes of compassionate empathy in his fiction. Read how Steven Garber described the comfort he has received from the Chronicles of Narnia.
“A children’s story which is enjoyed only by children is a bad children’s story. The good ones last,” Lewis once wrote. Over the years, in the moments when life seems bleakest, when I can only sigh or groan, I have come back again and again to The Magician’s Nephew. . . .
Lewis gives us an image that is profoundly rich and wonderfully tender. We need both. The tears of God are complex. They must be tears of sympathy, even empathy, as Aslan weeps for Digory’s mother and as Jesus weeps with his friends at the death of their brother.
But sometimes they are also tears of anger at the unnaturalness of death, at the distortion of death, at the skewing of human hopes, as Jesus “groaned severely in his spirit” at the death of Lazarus. (Visions of Vocation)
One of the clearest examples of consolation offered by Lewis is found in his provision for Mrs. Moore, the mother of a WWI friend. The story is complex, but it is based upon Lewis keeping a promise—that if one of them died in the trenches, the other would care for that soldier’s parent.
Lesser men would have conveniently forgotten their vow, but Lewis provided for her from 1917 until her death in 1951. Their relation during the early years is uncertain, but there is no doubt that after his conversion to Christianity, it was chaste. Lewis was dutiful, like a true son, in caring for a woman more than twenty-five years his senior, whose own daughter acknowledged was emotionally abusive towards Lewis.
Professor Alice von Hildebrand offers a candid essay on this sensitive subject here. She includes the following quotation from the diary of Lewis’ brother, Warnie, who was a member of the same household.
One of Jack’s friends is supposed to have said, “Cursed be the day that thou fell into the hands of the Moore.” Warren gave vent to his frustration and constant irritation by confiding in his diary. He writes:
“It fills me with both admiration and irritation to see how completely the whole of J’s [Jack, the name by which Lewis’ friends addressed him] life is subordinated to hers—financially, socially, recreationally: the pity of it is that on his selflessness her selfishness fattens . . .”
An essay on this subject could easily grow into a book. To avoid that, I will restrain myself to one final point.
Only a master of language, and an astute student of humanity, recognizes the immense power, and the fragile limitation, of words. Ironically, it is when they are most important—such as in the offering of comfort to someone bereaved—that their shortcomings are most clear.
In the wake of the unbearable loss of his wife, Joy, Lewis wrote A Grief Observed. In this enlightening text, he points out the hollowness of mere words.
Talk to me about the truth of religion and I’ll listen gladly. Talk to me about the duty of religion and I’ll listen submissively. But don’t come talking to me about the consolations of religion or I shall suspect that you don’t understand.
This is something few people recognize before they are the recipients of word-oriented attempts at comfort. That’s why we stumble about saying things that frequently provide precious little true consolation.
Lewis had learned that abstract theological declarations—even those based on certain promises of God—do little to remove the deep sting of death. Far more effective, is sharing the crippling pain of the loss. To offer, as Jesus did to the sisters of Lazarus, one’s own tears.
If you are interested in reading more about this subject, you might want to check out one of my earlier posts on the nature of genuine consolation.
The illustration above comes from a thirteenth century manuscript. I have included it here, because the effort of the rabbit seeking to console the forlorn bird seems quite Narnianesque. It echoes the essence of Lewis’ childhood world of Boxen as well, and I imagine that C.S. Lewis would have enjoyed this marginalia on its own merit.