By Jenna Ebener
One of the graces I have received while recovering from a long-lasting concussion is gaining a variety of new perspectives. While I already considered myself an empathetic person, I am realizing that empathy can have many layers. You can only empathize with a person as much as you can imagine what that person is going through. We will never be able to understand fully what it is like for that person. However, our experiences paired with how we look at people can help us connect with others on a deep level.
Before my concussion, I was already deeply compassionate towards the students at our school. These students have to overcome enormous obstacles each day to complete tasks as seemingly “simple” as picking up items, looking at others, and talking. Having experienced a variety of symptoms that the typical population does not experience, I now admire our students more than ever. Our students require a lot of processing time and now I have a better understanding why. Now I know how challenging it is to understand what someone is telling you while you are hearing the noise from the vents, adults talking in the background, students making noises and iPads playing music.
I also have a better appreciation for the energy it takes our students to process everything going on around them and to respond with a body that does not work the way it should. I now understand the frustration of knowing your body is broken and you cannot do anything in that moment to fix it. I can take breaks every hour and meticulously plan my day to spread out my most cognitive-intensive tasks, yet I cannot control how one day I can tolerate noise and the next day even the sound of the intercom brings on a splitting headache.
This experience has deepened my empathy and perspective and has increased my understanding of human suffering, which is a part of life and not something we can avoid. Part of my role of being a social worker is helping people who are suffering. It took a great toll on me over my first few years because I felt like I could never do enough. I realize now that I was trying to fix something that could not and should not be fixed.
When we suffer, God guides us to transform that suffering so that we become even better images of him, if we let him. How do we let him? It is not a matter of simply “offering up” our emotions. We have emotions for a reason — we need to first feel them and then investigate the sensations. Once we understand and accept what we are feeling, we can truly offer up these feelings to God. We need to surrender to the pain in order to accept and embrace intense emotions before we can let them go. Otherwise, we will become numb to suffering or turn to unhealthy ways of coping.
Accepting suffering as a part of life rather than trying to escape it allows us to embrace the beauty of community that often accompanies suffering. Recently, I was at a funeral for a student who died. While it was heartbreaking, I can also look back and see the overwhelming presence of God in all of those gathered. We were united in our sadness and in our support of the family. The family did not want us there to fix anything; they wanted us there as a symbol of love for them and their beloved daughter.
Those connections are forged deepest during events that are often the hardest to bear. Thanks be to God, we never have to bear them alone. “Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our troubles, so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves receive from God” (2 Corinthians 1:3-4).
(Jenna Ebener, a graduate of St. Ambrose University in Davenport, is a social worker at a school in Colorado for students with a combination of medical, cognitive and behavior disabilities. She relies on God every day to aid her on this wonderful, yet intense journey.)