This post is part of our Lenten series, journeying the Stations of the Cross. In this meditation on the Fifth Station of the Cross, Simon of Cyrene helps Jesus Carry the Cross, Contributor Bridget shows us the difference between carrying the cross for someone else, and helping them shoulder their burden.
I am an empath. I have been all my life, a “sensitive soul,” as my mother called me in my childhood. I did not know how to process my feelings or sensitivities early on, but I figured out a way to do so once I reached college age. I determined that the best way to display my care for others and assist them with their problems was to become the one person they could perpetually depend on, providing practically, emotionally, and spiritually for them, and doing my best to take on the responsibility of getting them through the valley they were facing.
I was a very naïve young woman. I thought that by taking on the burden someone else was facing, I was helping them. Moreso, I did not want anyone to suffer alone, so I made myself extra-present to friends. Usually one friendship at a time, I devoted my entire self to their service, to be their counsel, their practical provider, with the perfect quote, Bible verse, marathon prayer session, book, or gift. I forced myself into the situation so, in my view, to pick up the cross they carried and make it my own in order that the problem might be avoided or diverted to me, and they would not have to walk through it.
I remember many situations clearly, those in which there was nothing my practical service could possibly do to lift the pain and load that a friend was encountering. One was a death in a family close to me. I wanted desperately to take on the numerous and heavy responsibilities faced by a family in mourning, thinking that if I organized the entire sympathy card and donation list, that would be helpful. I was assigned to process the donations given in the name of their loved one, and I did so proudly. I was at the church for all services, guiding the family and large circle of friends to their seats and facilitating the different small ceremonies included in the funeral mass.
Then, at the reception, I walked directly up to my friend and promptly presented her with the next tasks on the list of what I had done thus far for her, and thought nothing of it as she tried to comprehend the enormity of what I thought was so important.
I learned of my great error the next day, when dropping the pile of sympathy cards at the house. The family was essentially in hiding, on the most somber day after the funeral when all goes quiet and the reality of the loss begins to set in. No one was available. The gentle friend of the family staying with them graciously accepted the items and asked me to go. My friend was reeling, exhausted, grieving, and trying to figure out how to get out of bed. And I was consumed with the practical, unimportant details like starting the thank you notes as promptly as possible. I had absolutely no clue and had to relinquish my desire to be in the trenches and somehow take on the entirety of the grief this family had to embrace and live.
I felt profound guilt after my grave misstep, and in the weeks that followed, I reached out to my friend to apologize for my short-sightedness. I wanted to alleviate the suffering of others, but my mode of doing so was to crawl down into the depths with them, sit there, and offer idea after idea of how we could both get out, trying to push the person facing the spiritual, physical, mental, or emotional opportunity facing them into facing it and “fixing” it whether it was the time to do so or not. In operating this way, I took on more and more of the burdens of others, burying myself in their pain and making their journey mine.
I have tried to “transfer the cross” instead of walking alongside someone carrying it. The pattern repeated itself again and again and again, and my missteps continued until I faced my own heavy cross. A wise friend advised me that neither she nor anyone could be a rescuer for me, and that the healing she had experienced in her own life kept her from entering the situation like I wanted her to. She informed me that she would be beside me, but would not crawl into the depths with me. I had to face the circumstances and walk through them myself, embracing the pain and challenge needed in order to heal, learn, and find the freedom and light that only God could provide.
I was angry initially, but she did not remove her friendship. She simply remained within her own calling and spiritual capacity to love me while not rescuing or taking my cross from me. It was mine to carry.
It was the biggest lesson I have learned thus far. We cannot take on another’s cross. We can help them carry it, but we cannot take it. Simon of Cyrene was tasked with briefly assisting Jesus by carrying the physical cross during part of the walk toward the place of crucifixion. He took on a physical, practical portion of the Via Dolorosa, with no concept of the depth of his participation in the events that changed the course of our destiny. He was present in a small way to his Savior, but he did not remove the horrific suffering Jesus Himself had to endure for the sake of all humankind.
We can help and care for each other as we carry our individual crosses, as suffering, brokenness, and pain meet us during our lives. We can ask how we can pray for others. We can take on a practical task or responsibility such as grocery shopping, laundry, housecleaning, or house-sitting. We can sit with others and listen as they face the woundedness of the world and process the meaning of their cross. But it is crucial to remain within ourselves, to allow the story to be that of the person facing it, to be gentle with our loved ones and ourselves, and stay grounded within our capabilities and capacity to love while not sacrificing our own nature.
We can empathize, understand, and identify with portions of the journey a friend or family member is facing. However, we cannot possibly ever truly know what another is feeling. We can have a practical or spiritual provision at the ready. We must remember that those in crisis or painful situations may not know what they need and may not be able to make any decisions. Instead of saying, “Call me if you need anything,” and then getting frustrated when we do not receive a call, think about saying something such as, “I’ll be bringing dinner over” or “I’ll be there on Friday to do the laundry.” Ask, “How can I pray for you?” Never use any phrase beginning with, “At least…”
Witnessing another as they carry a cross can be heart-wrenching. It can take everything within us to keep ourselves from attempting to steal that cross away and struggle with it ourselves. But it is not our calling to do so. These crosses are crucial to our molding and pruning into the saints we all wish to be. My cross will differ from yours. I cannot carry your cross in the way you must, and you cannot take on my suffering, as you do not possess the grace to face my vocation. We cannot carry each other’s burdens, but we can hold them tightly and be present to those walking their own Way of the Cross.