The news broke yesterday that Sinéad O’Connor had died. The Irish singer-songwriter is being remembered in the media for her famed music career, political activism, and tumultuous life on stage and off. A teen of the 90s, I mostly knew O’Connor for her huge hit song “Nothing Compares 2 U,” the music video for which left me in awe at her expression of raw emotion, and her Saturday Night Live performance, where she concluded singing about child abuse by ripping up a picture of the pope.
A high school peer of mine reminisced on social media about seeing O’Connor in concert in 1989. She only played four songs before having a panic attack and abruptly leaving the stage. “I was mad about it for a long time,” my friend wrote. “Now that I better understand anxiety and mental illness, I just felt compassion and gratitude that I got to hear those four songs.”
There is a degree of maturing that comes with age. A few decades can easily allow a person to let go of anger over buying a concert ticket and only getting fifteen minutes of entertainment out of it. But it takes more than aging to understand another person’s struggles, another person’s reality, another person’s pain. For my friend, gaining a better understanding of anxiety and mental illness provided the wellspring of compassion and gratitude that they needed to not only reconcile their view of O’Connor, but to also see others with that same measure of understanding that yields compassion and gratitude for whatever part those beloved others play in my friend’s life, be it for fifteen minutes or for seven hours and fifteen days.
From a Christian perspective, this is the spiritual discipline of empathy. In Paul’s letter to the Romans, the apostle writes that we are children of God, and, as such, we are co-heirs with Christ; and that co-heirship invites us to suffer with Christ (Romans 8:17). This doesn’t mean that we go throwing ourselves up on crosses, but that we do as Christ did (to the extent that it’s humanly possible) by empathizing with the lived experience of those who are shunned, misunderstood, and booed out of the center of mainstream community so deeply that it might cause us to suffer the pain of being shunned and misunderstood ourselves; even booed out of relationships and communities we once held dear on account of our audacity to have compassion when it’s unpopular and gratitude when it’s unwarranted.
That kind of empathy doesn’t come naturally with age. It requires intentionality. Early Christian communities received the instructions from Paul to “remember those who are in prison, as though you were in prison with them; those who are being tortured, as though you yourselves were being tortured” (Hebrews 13:3, NRSV). It’s that perspective of empathizing with someone else’s struggles, reality, and pain that allows for not just compassion and gratitude to be our outlook toward one another, but for solidarity to grow out of that nurtured bond of understanding.
Granted, our varying degrees of privilege and social stations in life make it impossible to empathize fully with someone else’s lived experience, to understand their pain, reality, and struggles; but we can try. We can always try. It’s in the trying to see one another where we are and for who we are that we grow more fully into our identity as beloved children of God: co-heirs of justice, mercy, and love called to be in solidarity with one another as Christ, who sees us in our beautiful and terrible mess and loves us beyond measure, is in solidarity with us.
As Sinéad O’Connor always saw the most vulnerable, oppressed, and overlooked people in society and spoke up for them from her platform in the spotlight, may we do all we can to empathize with peripheral realities that we can’t begin to understand, but that we can stand up for and stand alongside with compassion and gratitude for the opportunity given to us to do so in this life.