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Lessons in Empathy from Cheryl Strayed

Cheryl Strayed photo

My piece about Cheryl Strayed.  One of the things that has saved me during my period of not preaching, is reading books and writing reviews or author interviews.  It gives me a chance to enter into the brave world of people putting words to the human condition, often without the illusion of a well-drawn map.

People tell me “your experience with your daughter is your greatest ministry”  or  “THIS will make you a better pastor.”  I smile to cover up the questions, really, why does she have to suffer so I can be a better person?  Is that really the scale you want to believe in?  I smile to cover up the exhaustion and the fear.  The truth is the ongoing stress I live with in order to manage her medical needs leaves me too tired to process the anxiety of others.

Fatigue leads to compassion fatigue.  This has gotten better as we have secured more consistent nursing help especially at night, but even a few weeks ago, almost 4 years into this drama, I found myself crying in the empty hospital room of a person I was visiting.  It was two and a half weeks before our most invasive surgery to date, one that would leave my daughter intubated and sedated for 3+days and crazy in withdrawal for several more.  I was full of dread, images of the almost stillborn, motionless baby in the NICU flooded back.  I knew on a rational level that she was so much stronger and that she would most likely come out of this surgery and sedation without a trach, ready for a new life, but I dreaded the 3 days she (and I) would spend in the tomb.  When I saw a bed just like the one we wheel Margaret into the OR on, I lost it.  I was in the hospital (not ours) to visit a vibrant woman in her 70’s who’d had her hip replaced and I was weeping by the time I got to her room.  When I got there she was still downstairs at physical therapy so I sat alone for 45 minutes, trying to put words to what was going on inside me, trying to make space to receive what would be going on inside her.

When I need lessons in empathy, I read Cheryl Strayed.  She puts the questions and the striving for answers or at least a way forward into real, concrete situations with accessible but original language.  She tries not to alienate with abstractions or heavily loaded terms and yet she doesn’t intend her words to be fluffy or weightless, just to push us to the possibility that there are many ways to express what guides us.

Strayed became popular as the anonymous advice columnist, Dear Sugar, for  When I read her collection of columns, I am struck by how often she describes carrying people’s questions and descriptions of their lives with her for weeks, months, waking her up in the middle of the night, until she can “get to the layers of things your letter implies: the questions you didn’t ask that stand so brightly behind the questions you did.”  That is what being a pastor is to me.  Was.  That level of radical empathy.  Cheryl Strayed intrigues me because she lives with faith without believing in God.

For those who accept human frailty and suffering for what it is and our responsibility to do what we can to relieve it in others and love through it in ourselves, read her whole cannon.

For those who need to hear the name G-d, but yearn for a fresh perspective on grace and all its manifestations.  Read her response about Jesus on the Cross to a woman in doubt after her 6 month’s old brain tumor: Dear Sugar: #88 The Human Scale

Or her interview with Anne Lamott in which she draws connections between their ways of seeing the world:  Strayed interviews Anne Lamott.

This Spring, I attended a weekend workshop on Cognitive Based Compassion Training based on the Lojong meditation practice of the Dalai Lama and his Tibetan monks.  The monk with a PHd in neuroscience that was teaching the workshop laughed at the term “compassion fatigue.”  He pointed to the 8 hours of receiving strangers and showing compassion that the Dalai Lama does nearly everyday.  Then he detailed the rest of the Dalai Lama’s day.  4 hours of evening meditation, 8 hours of sleep, 4 hours of morning meditation, then the 8 hours of receiving strangers or meetings.  Since I had returned the night before from a 3 week stay at our children’s hospital, an 8 hour-drive away.  My daughter had just completed the first stages of an airway reconstructio.  For me, sleep was not an option neither was the “alone time” necessary for meditation.  I found myself a little cynical about everyday people keeping up such high standards.

For those who like me, want desperately to be more compassionate, but can’t find the time to sleep, much less meditate vigilantly, may I make a suggestion:  READ.  Anything really, just READ.  (When you find something particularly amazing, share it with the rest of us).

Cheryl Strayed photo

Cheryl Strayed after her reading and the publication of my interview for

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