A couple of months ago I had one person in my office complaining about one of the things that needs to be changed here in the church. I listened to the issue and even though I saw his point of view, I did not feel that it was as important as the person made it out to be.
Our meeting was interrupted by a person who needed immediate help. Through a series of mistakes made by this person, his furniture was placed outside of the apartment. He and his children had no place to go that night. I could have rationalized as I listened to his story that the apartment owner was not heartless since he gave him one month to come with the money or move out. Since he did not come with the money, the owner placed his furniture in the hall. He did not have a place to sleep that night. I happened to have the amount of money for one night at a nearby hotel and I helped him that night.
I was thinking about the two events on the way home. Both people felt very passionate about the issues that they were living through. I made a value judgment on the first and I concluded that it was not as important as the second. The second was painful and I responded faster, but I had to conclude that I was glad that I had the money to help. In all honesty, I do not think that I felt the pain of the person; rather I had the joy that we were able to help that night.
Recently, politicians are using the expression made popular by our former President, Bill Clinton - “I feel your pain.” I know that it varies from person to person and from counselor to counselor, but I think that most of us understand pain and we can talk about it, but rarely experience it with the people whose pain we claim to feel.
I explained to some of my close friends what it meant for me to live in the refugee camp in Italy for 16 months when I was 15-16 years old. We stayed that long because my father had tuberculosis a number of years before we came to the refugee camp. Even though he was cured, the first country that we applied to migrate to rejected us on the fact that they did not receive people who previously had TB. I still can see the pain on my father’s face when he explained to us that we are stateless. We could not go back to the country of our origin without him and my mother going to jail and the country where we wanted to go rejected us. That night we thought that nobody wanted us. The fact that we are in the USA meant that our conclusion was not right, but we had to wait for 8 more months.
When I was 24, I returned to Italy with a group of college friends. They wanted to go and see a refugee camp and I was supposed to be their guide. When we got off the bus a short distance from the refugee camp, my feet would just not move in the direction of the camp. I told my friends that they could go, but I just could not. Seeing my pain, my empathetic friends decided not to go either. In silence, we took the next bus back to Napoli.
I talked with some other people about the refugee camp. Sometimes my friends try to visualize the camp and they imagine it to be a rustic camping place. However, a refugee camp is more than poor living conditions – there is a feeling of major crisis wafting through the air, affecting everything, creating hopelessness, anxiety and pain.
This past week, I listened to two of my students who grew up in Haiti. The devastation created by the earthquake is indescribable. One of them said, “Even when you see pictures, you cannot begin to feel what it is like when a whole section of your country is in the dust.”
The pain of a person who is trying everyday to find a job and has not succeeded in a whole year is real and only a few others can understand it. The pain of the Haitian people is so deep that few will be able to feel it.
Perhaps we utilize the expression “I feel your pain,” because indeed we cannot understand unless we are in the same predicament.