exercise in empathy, another name for prayer
can you imagine? can you imagine waking up with your bedroom windows shaking, a distant thump unmistakably drenching you in dread, even in the liminal fog of your pre-dawn dreams?
can you imagine lifting your newborn from the crib, cradling him against your breast, and running in the cold to the nearest subway shelter, where you will then spend hours upon endless hours, hearing the faint cacophony of what you know to be bombs exploding on a land you call your own?
can you imagine?
can you imagine rushing to your kitchen, clearing shelves of whatever might fuel you in the long hours ahead, grabbing your dog, your kids, your passport, and climbing behind the wheel of a car with only a half tank of gas, a tank you meant to fill the day before but one of the kids got cranky so you thought you’d put it off?
can you imagine if you were due to show up for an MRI to see how far the cancer had spread, how fractured was the tibia, the hip, the wrist, but now the air-raid sirens blare through the dawn and you have to weigh a trip to the hospital or the nearest border?
can you imagine watching your father fill his duffle bag, turning toward the door, pausing to kiss you on the forehead, watching the tears well up in your mother’s eyes, seeing how her hand now is shaking, how she clutches the sleeve of your father’s coat, and how he pulls himself away, unlocks the door and steps out into darkness? and your mother fills the sudden emptiness with a wail you’ve never heard before?
can you imagine holding a ticket to a flight out in the morning only to awake to find the airports all are closed, bombed in the night, and no air space is safe for flying?
imagining is imperative. imagining is how we weave the invisible threads that make us one united people, that make us begin to know what it is to walk in another’s hell.
imagining is the birthing ground of empathy.
and empathy fuels our most selfless urgent prayer.
empathy––a necessary precondition for loving as you would be loved, the necessity of imagining another someone’s pain or fear or desperation, for sometimes imagining nothing more complicated than cold or hunger or exhaustion so overwhelming you’re sure your heart is on its last full measure––empathy is the exercise that puts form and fuel to prayer, that enfolds its stripped-down architecture in the flesh of humanity. be it agony, or terror. be it frenzy, or dizzying confusion.
empathy is what lifts our prayer out of the trench of numbness, muttering words we memorize but do not mean. empathy fine chisels each and every prayer. catapults us beyond our own self-obsessed borders, across time zone or geography. conjoins our circumstance with that of someone we have never met, someone whose predicament is dire, and is––in fact––beyond our most ignited imagination.
truth is, our empathy cannot take us the whole distance. cannot––despite our deepest straining––plant us in the fiery pit of what it is to be awaking to the bombs, watching the ones we love walk into the inky darkness, not knowing for weeks if they’re dead or alive, maimed or shackled, or someone else’s prisoners of war.
but it’s the place to begin.
and isn’t the whole point of praying to reach across the emptiness, the void, to unfurl the one first filament that might begin to bring us side-by-side, in soul and spirit if not in flesh?
don’t we sometimes pray as if to hoist another’s leaden burden onto the yoke of our own shoulders?
isn’t the heart of it to lift us as one? we’re not here as parties of one, churning up our own little worries, butting our place to the front of the God line. we’re here to pay attention. to scan for hurt and humiliation, to go beyond, far beyond, lip service and throw-away lines.
imagination––the exercise of empathy––is a God-given gift, it’s the thing that equips us to love as you would be loved. without it, our every petition is flat. is a waste of our breath, really.
we invoke the hand, the heart of God, yes. but isn’t it our business, our holy business, to get about the work of trying to weave us into true holy communion?
it is our empathies that just might save us as a people, that just might move us toward the place where all our prayers rise in echo, from all corners, nooks, and crannies.
it’s not often we wake up to war. but we did this week. and so we will in the weeks and weeks to come.
i awake now in unending prayer. another name for exercising empathies, to stay awake to the suffering now inflicted on ones we’re meant to love. even if we’ll never know their names.
i searched for a prayer for peace, and came circling back to this, from ellen bass; it is a prayer for all, no matter to whom or what or how you pray:
Pray for Peace
Pray to whomever you kneel down to:
Jesus nailed to his wooden or plastic cross,
his suffering face bent to kiss you,
Buddha still under the bo tree in scorching heat,
Adonai, Allah. Raise your arms to Mary
that she may lay her palm on our brows,
to Shekhina, Queen of Heaven and Earth,
to Inanna in her stripped descent.
Then pray to the bus driver who takes you to work.
On the bus, pray for everyone riding that bus,
for everyone riding buses all over the world.
Drop some silver and pray.
Waiting in line for the movies, for the ATM,
for your latte and croissant, offer your plea.
Make your eating and drinking a supplication.
Make your slicing of carrots a holy act,
each translucent layer of the onion, a deeper prayer.
To Hawk or Wolf, or the Great Whale, pray.
Bow down to terriers and shepherds and Siamese cats.
Fields of artichokes and elegant strawberries.
Make the brushing of your hair
a prayer, every strand its own voice,
singing in the choir on your head.
As you wash your face, the water slipping
through your fingers, a prayer: Water,
softest thing on earth, gentleness
that wears away rock.
Making love, of course, is already prayer.
Skin, and open mouths worshipping that skin,
the fragile cases we are poured into.
If you’re hungry, pray. If you’re tired.
Pray to Gandhi and Dorothy Day.
Shakespeare. Sappho. Sojourner Truth.
When you walk to your car, to the mailbox,
to the video store, let each step
be a prayer that we all keep our legs,
that we do not blow off anyone else’s legs.
Or crush their skulls.
And if you are riding on a bicycle
or a skateboard, in a wheelchair, each revolution
of the wheels a prayer as the earth revolves:
less harm, less harm, less harm.
And as you work, typing with a new manicure,
a tiny palm tree painted on one pearlescent nail,
or delivering soda or drawing good blood
into rubber-capped vials, twirling pizzas–
With each breath in, take in the faith of those
who have believed when belief seemed foolish,
who persevered. With each breath out, cherish.
Pull weeds for peace, turn over in your sleep for peace,
feed the birds, each shiny seed
that spills onto the earth, another second of peace.
Wash your dishes, call your mother, drink wine.
Shovel leaves or snow or trash from your sidewalk.
Make a path. Fold a photo of a dead child
around your Visa card. Scoop your holy water
from the gutter. Gnaw your crust.
Mumble along like a crazy person, stumbling
your prayer through the streets.
how did you learn to pray?
a note in an age of war: when the first reports started seeping in, when the news broke the other night that shelling had started along the northern, eastern, and southern borders of ukraine, it wasn’t long till i found myself thinking of all of you here at the chair. i knew we would all be huddled on the edge of our armchairs, keeping watch, keeping terrible watch. made me wish that every once in a while we could be together in real time, with our real faces and voices. our hearts and souls come to life. maybe after two years without company, without mornings when i set out mugs and bowls spilling with clementines, i am getting hungrier for human contact. made me wonder if maybe one day soon we should gather in a zoom room. i’ll leave this as a thought. i know we’re a gaggle of rather shy souls, but even us shy ones sometimes hunger for company. true company.
p.s. haven’t heard a peep from any editors so my wait for edits continues….
and here, rather than imagining, is a chilling dispatch from the ukraine on thursday morning….(NY Times) https://www.nytimes.com/2022/02/25/opinion/ukraine-russia-kyiv.html?campaign_id=39&emc=edit_ty_20220225&instance_id=54229&nl=opinion-today®i_id=9760095&segment_id=83910&te=1&user_id=7c634dc21796a1fd1042ee8f73e9eb68
This absolutely destroyed me.
I’m not great at Zoom, but I am a full yes for getting together for a virtual gathering around the table.
Sorry to hear that after the stomach knotting preparation, the editing has again been delayed. Bah. So sorry, Sweetie.
What a wonderful, thought provoking piece.
I think the zoom room is a wonderful idea
ohhh, jane! i would have a zoom just to be in your company! let me see if these edits magically appear today, and if not i will think seriously about zooming…..
poems are prayers, almost always to me. here, in the spirit of prayer unfurled through poetry, a link to a collection of contemporary poems from the Ukraine, all from the poet Iya Kiva, and the first in a series from LitHub, the great gathering place for all things poetic and otherwise:
the power of video is that it fills in the spaces where imagination falters or fails. here, a link to video of a neonatal nursery moved into a shelter. i’m sorry if it’s soul-shattering to watch this, but this is the reality in the ukraine: https://www.instagram.com/reel/CaYo9Zbgh61/?utm_source=ig_web_copy_link
Thank you for the Ellen Bass poem. I think you’ve shared it before, but a rereading is renewing.
At a time when our democracy is under attack from within, I have the utmost respect and admiration for the people of Ukraine for their love of country and their bravery and steadfast resolve to defend their democracy against the Russian military juggernaut, sent by a dictator with a ruthless appetite to expand the lands under his domination.
I could not turn off the old portable radio Wednesday night/early Thursday morning as live reports on the invasion of Ukraine began pouring in on BBC/NPR. I finally went to sleep, only to awake a few hours later to the ongoing coverage. And I wondered if my parents and grandparents similarly had huddled around a big, boxy tube-powered radio as news came in about the occupation of Czechoslovakia and then the invasion of Poland. And if there was the same apprehension, then as now.
I guess it can always get scarier. But as you counsel, “it is our empathies that just might save us as a people.” There is work to do. Thank you, bam.
And I’m in on a table Zoom meeting.
your thoughts, as always, evoke all the deepest notes for me. i think many of us found ourselves late wednesday night/early thursday imagining our ancestors taking in shattering news, only then through mediums that took time and gathered us in rather than pushing us all so far apart. oh, the demons of the digital age……
thank you for bringing your heart here this morning, or afternoon, or whatever time it now is…..(it appears to be snowfall time out my window, and there is something of grace there…..)
Tragedy. Tragic. To see this in our lifetime. To think maybe we were beyond this. Even optimists are having a hard time today. Thank you for introducing me to this young Ukrainian poet. I’m not a zoomer but would be interested to meet your lovely table. There’s some romance and mystery in not meeting;)
i’m a reluctant zoomer, but the inclination to be encircled stirred me…..
i’m a reluctant zoomer, but the impulse to be encircled stirred me….
and now your comment about the mystery in not meeting is tugging at me, too…….
BAM, I pray most deeply when I’m blessed with a fleeting moment of being ONE as I was just now as I read your ‘can you imagine’ litany. Thank you! Love in abundance, MJ
and love in abundance in kind…….
if we could all catch that moment of being at the very same moment, might it then move the mountain that’s needed…..call me crazy, but i see the faintest glimmers of hope in the crowds gathered on russian streets and squares, and in the resilience of the ukrainian men to step into harm’s way, all in defense of a country they love. might it stir some of us out of our national slumber to see that we HAVE the democracy they are willing to die for? it’s ours to keep, but we too need to fight to hold on…..
“less harm, less harm, less harm.”
Such a beautiful poem, Barb. Thank you for this. Praying moment by moment for all of us…
amen, amen, amen……
My prayres have been with the people in Ukrania for a few days now. And my faith tells me that all these constant prayers will be answered in due time. My heart aches, and those aches lead me to more prayer.
i love your faith, and rest easier in simply hearing your words. we are watching the scenes now; it gets more wrenching by the minute…..
Just this morning I was looking at The Atlantic’s photos of the week feature. In one is a woman my age who, with a young woman my daughter’s age, looks out the window of a train with a stricken look at a young man, who is my son’s age, left standing on the platform. Imagining myself in her shoes brought me to my knees.