When I was 17 years old my aunt took me to see “Miss Saigon” at the Kennedy Center. I cried ugly, drippy tears throughout a good part of it and felt a gut-wrenching loss and sadness for the characters in the story. The next day I bought the soundtrack. I remember driving in my little blue Hyundai Excel, listening to that cassette tape over and over, just sobbing as I drove, even months after seeing the show. It was then that I knew I might have a problem.
Over the years I have struggled with a growing sensitivity and overtly emotional response to certain things. At first I didn’t think I was vastly different from others. In college my two best friends and I would watch “Touched By An Angel” every Sunday night and pass the tissues back and forth (or roll of toilet paper, whatever was handy). In the early days of my marriage I cried just as easily over a sweet, romantic gesture as I did over disagreements, but so did other wives, I reasoned. Weddings and funerals always required water-proof mascara and a pack of tissues, but there were always others with the same need. I didn’t feel like I was alone in these responses.
Then at 26 I had my first child and whatever emotional dam was still in place just disintegrated. I began to cry at everything! And I mean everything. I cried at movies and over news reports. I cried at church. I laid in bed at 2 a.m. sobbing over a book. I cried while praying over a sick or hurting friend. I cried in the shower as the previous night’s argument replayed in my mind. At first I tried to blame it on pregnancy hormones, but after 6 or 7 years people stop accepting that as an excuse.
It didn’t help that as time moved on, it got worse.
Over the years any ability to temper when, where, or in front of whom I cry has been lost. These days a kind, heartfelt word from a stranger in the check-out line can make my eyes brim with tears. I cry at parent-teacher conferences and sitting in bleachers watching my kids play basketball, run cross country or dance in a ballet recital. I have sat in restaurants talking with friends and wiping my eyes and nose with napkins as they share their life and I share mine. And here’s the thing: it’s not really the content or the words that make me cry, it’s the feelings.
I feel all of it. Everything.
When that stranger in Target says, “you have really polite kids” I feel all the many frustrating days spent reminding them over and over to use their manners and be kind to one another. When I see my daughter running across that finish line, I feel her pain and hard work and how much she wanted to beat her best time. When the teacher tells me how my son is improving, I feel every hard day he came home with a poor behavior note and every hard night spent working with him around the dining room table, encouraging him to stay focused and finish his homework. When my friend sits across from me at that restaurant and tells me how difficult things have been in her marriage, or how she feels God has abandoned her, I feel her hurt and suffering. And just this afternoon I read the good news that a Syrian refugee family my childhood church was sponsoring finally made it safely to the U.S. after many delays; and I just cried because I felt the relief, the exhaustion, and the hope this family must feel to finally be here, be safe, and have a roof over their heads.
I feel it all. And the tears flow without warning, without control.
It can be embarrassing, off-putting, and frustrating to not have any control over these emotions or my body’s response. I was lamenting about this to a friend, who suffers a similar affliction, a few months ago and she said: “it’s because you’re an empath.” A what? I had never heard this term, but after she explained it to me and I did some reading I realized the traits used to describe an empath were very similar to traits I had recently read about after completing a spiritual gifts assessment for my church.
I had been excited to take the assessment, eager to see my spiritual gifts in writing, and expecting a confirmation of where I already felt called to be working in ministry. But I confess I was underwhelmed and confused by the results. Three of my top rated gifts included Mercy, Exhortation, and Faith, and I thought: What do these mean? How are faith and mercy spiritual gifts? These are things you just do or have. And what the heck is exhortation anyway?
It was mercy that really stumped me, though. Aren’t we all called to show mercy? I didn’t see how that was a special God-given gift.
But after talking to my Pastor and later having this conversation with my friend, I started to see a connection between this spiritual gift and my deep emotions. I began to do more research on spiritual gifts and how God calls them out in scripture. As I put the pieces together, I realized the spiritual gift of mercy isn’t just the act of showing mercy, it is an ability to feel great empathy for others, to walk alongside them in their pain, suffering, or even joy and show Christ’s love through that deep understanding. As one author explained it, those with the gift of mercy are able to “Carry each other’s burdens, and in this way…fulfill the law of Christ.” (Galatians 6:2)
So I started to wonder if my intense feeling was actually a gift. If my broken, leaking tear ducts were not actually a burden or something to be embarrassed by after all, but rather part of a call on my life from God — a channel for Him to use me to fulfill His plans. And then do you know what happened?
I started to cry.
If you want to learn more about Spiritual gifts, I recommend reading Romans 12:6-8, 1 Corinthians 12:8-10; 28-30, and Ephesians 4:11. You can also go to this website and take a free Spiritual Gifts assessment: http://spiritualgiftstest.com/
photo credit: Stefano Montagner – The life around me Irish Museum of Modern Art via photopin (license)