Language as Empathy: Compassion and the Grace of Expression

Over at The American Scholar, acclaimed poet Christian Wiman wrote an essay, entitled “Mortify Our […]

Will McDavid / 10.24.12

Over at The American Scholar, acclaimed poet Christian Wiman wrote an essay, entitled “Mortify Our Wolves“, on his sickness with cancer and the dynamics of loss more generally – from the perspective of a preternaturally articulate Christian and sufferer. For those interested in language, empathy, pastoral care, or just about anything else in the world, it’s more than worth reading (unless you have an aversion to the occasional swear-word). We’ll hit a few high points here but again, reading it in entirety is highly recommended, ht MS:

There comes a moan to the cancer clinic. There comes a sound so low and unvarying it seems hardly human, more a note the wind might strike off jags of rock and ice in some wasted place too remote for anyone to hear.

We hear, and look up as one at the two attendants hurriedly wheeling something so shrunken it seems merely another rumple in the blanket, tubes traveling in and out of its impalpability, its only life this lifeless cry.

He’s not doing theology per se, but the true-to-life, fundamentally spiritual dimension of his language comes through. The solitude of pain, our deafness to it, life’s rejoinder to impending death only in the heightened feeling of pain. The essay is of course depressing, and yet one of its implicit claims seems to be that pain must be appropriated, mediated by language and our own experience, before any sort of empathy can arise. One could almost go so far as to say that the ability to appropriate pain to one’s own experience is, as Kierkegaard seemed to think, a prerequisite for faith – how much do Wiman’s first two paragraphs sound like the “My God, my God” (Ps 22) on the cross? And yet, no amount of theology or analysis or, indeed, anything on an intellectual level can give true empathy. The appropriation of pain comes through emotional appeals like metaphor, language – things which allow us a share, albeit the slightest and smallest, in another’s suffering. This element is another point of strength in Wiman’s essay, and another reason to read it:

Poetry has its uses for despair. It can carve a shape in which pain can seem to be; it can give one’s loss a form and dimension so that it might be loss and not simply a hopeless haunting.

The acknowledgement of loss, its giving of a form and shape, is deeply abreactive. The Law/Grace message here (and note, it feels almost violent to apply even those fundamental categories to a work so poetic and personal) seems to be that our natural resistance to pain, our barriers, can be graciously broken by the devastating form of a few lines upon a page. Though poetry is perhaps the acme of this breaking-through, drama, short stories, movies, modern art, or anything else can have a graciously shocking, disarming potential:

I felt a million living tendrils

rooting through the thing I was,

as if I’d turned to earth before my death

or in my death could somehow feel.


The beauty of those words, and poetry/creative language in general, is its incredible emotional appeal and disarmament in an age, and especially in an American Christianity, that are increasingly intellectualized. The distinct problem of the modern man is that “he cannot think and feel at the same time”, Walker Percy said. Language can bridge this divide, and it breaks through to our ‘inner children’ by completely undoing us:

…’If Thou be more than hate or atmosphere,

Step forth in splendor, mortify our wolves,

Or we assume a sovereignty ourselves.’

-Gwendolyn Brooks

His thoughts on suffering are incredible, though irreproducible here without his original language, the sub-cognitive emotional appeal. Equally articulate are his (related) thoughts on Christianity:

I am a Christian because of that moment on the cross when Jesus, drinking the very dregs of human bitterness, cries out, ‘My God, my God, why has Thou forsaken me?’ (I know, I know: he was quoting the Psalms, and who quotes a poem while being tortured? The words aren’t the point. The point is that he felt human destitution to its absolute degree; the point is that God is with us, not beyond us, in suffering.) I am a Christian because I understand the moment of Christ’s passion to have meaning in my own life, and what it means is that the absolutely solitary and singular nature of extreme human suffering is an illusion. I’m not suggesting that ministering angels are going to come down and comfort you as you die. I’m suggesting that Christ’s suffering shatters the iron walls around individual human suffering, that Christ’s compassion makes extreme human compassion – to the point of death even – possible. Human love can reach right into death, then, but not if it is merely human love.