Spiritual Empathy

I spend my morning visiting with a 56-year-old patient dying of lung cancer. I'm mindful of the oceanic backdrop of Ms. Schwartz's life before I enter her room, eager to be of service and terrified. I introduce myself, asking if she would be interested in a visit, and she says yes, but insists that I will need to do the talking. She motions for me to bring her a pad and a pen so she can write. These are her exact words written to me:

"My name is Andrea. I was diagnosed last year with terminal cancer. I worked all year as a full professor. But this spring, I became paralyzed. I am done now. In hospice with two kids. NO FUN! Who are you?"

Struck by her directness, Andrea invites me into her world my first day on the unit. Who am I? My name is Avram. I'm a chaplain intern. I'm here for the summer.

"You're so young," Andrea says to me, "it must be so hard to understand."

I do feel so young. I feel a certain comfort around older patients but I feel particularly unprepared and unqualified to sit as a chaplain here with this dying woman in her 50s, my mother's age.

I say softly, "There's so much I don't understand."

"There's so much I don't understand either," Ms. Schwartz responds and begins to cry. She tells me how eager she is to get out of bed, about her kids, two teenagers, her son, who she describes as "a total mensch," and her 15-year-old daughter, who she says needs a mom.

"I want to release them," Andrea says, "but I can't."

This past year, Ms. Schwartz tells me how she was made full professor, published two books, and then this. She snaps her fingers and points to her head. "I still have a little bit up here. But I used to be strong like an ox." Ms. Schwartz describes how at home she would roll out of her hospital bed and do pushups. Now, she can't move.

I sit with Andrea, deeply moved. I have come to encounter death nearly every single day these past couple of months. My work this summer as a chaplain in a hospice unit at Beth Israel Medical Center in New York comes only a few months after my vibrant grandmother passed away at the age of 91. My entering the room of a dying 30-, 60- or 80-year-old to offer prayer exists amid the backdrop of torrential violence and global conflict.

I come home at the end of the day to my daughter who just turned two. In addition to her mimicking language and yelling "no" to every possible word that might come from my mouth, Ravi has started asking that timeless question, one she doesn't even fully comprehend just yet.

"Ravi," I say, "it's time to get dressed."

"Why?" she asks.

"Because it's time to go to daycare."


"Because that's where Ravi plays and learns."


"Because Mama and Tati have to go to work."

And so the cycle of questions continue until she gets distracted or I have confused her sufficiently. {Why shirts? Clothing is part of a social construct].

Ravi's questioning reminds me of my own. Her naiveté and innocence keep me sensitive and alert. She is the best medicine especially after a long day of work.

In pastoral education classes, we discuss theological versus pastoral responses. We've read writings by Rav Soloveitchik and Emmanuel Levinas. Levinas expresses that there is no meaning or significance to be derived from another's suffering. The only hope is that in reacting to another's suffering, we emotionally and viscerally can feel the pain of another. A spiritual empathy.

This is hard work and we all bump into each other's biases and places of ignorance, that of our patients and our chaplain colleagues.

In group, I share about my visit with a ninety year old survivor who never married nor had any surviving family. She finds herself alone in the barrio of Washington Heights. She talks bitingly about the non-Jewish neighbors who surround her and she desperately longs for London, the city that provided her refuge during the most tumultuous time.

My Catholic colleague insists that this survivor needs to forgive her non-Jewish neighbors from the past and I insist he has no idea what he's talking about.

Anger. Assumptions. Conflict.

This need to fix or rationalize certainly exists outside of my summer work as well. Facebook is explosive with friends on the left and right of the political spectrum, many who share an unease, a discomfort with empathizing fully. Our inability to be present to another gets veiled behind political complexities of the Israeli-Arab conflict, of the theological and spiritual desire to make sense of a world of contradictions. It comes as a defense mechanism so to not feel another's pain and it hurts to hear.

"They use their children as shields. What do you expect?"

"They lived behind the green line. What do you expect?"

"So what if they live in tents?" Their leaders are corrupt."

"So what if they drop leaflets before they bomb? They still bomb."

I can understand where some of these questions stem from but I can't help but wonder: what might our political discourse look like if we simply tried to hold the rage and sadness a parent feels upon learning their child is dead, instead of rationalizing our way out of it one way or another? What if we allowed ourselves to become so overwhelmed with sadness, grief, horror and shock at senseless murder, regardless of nationality or religion? What might we then be inspired to do?

I am familiar with dissonance. I am studying to be a rabbi and my grandparents were Holocaust survivors. Tumult, chaos and the hate human kind is capable of is ancient. "There is nothing new under the sun," the book of Ecclesiastes states and my grandmother often reminds me. I put Ravi to bed in her crib these nights in the comfort of our Manhattan apartment, away from sirens giving us fifteen seconds to find shelter or leaflets telling us to evacuate. I wonder what tomorrow will bring. I pray for fortitude, in trying to keep and to protect an open heart. I know Ravi needs that much from me: my presence, my joking, my attempts at answering her whys which are only bound to keep on getting harder and harder to answer.