When I volunteered at the refugee soup kitchen in Athens, before doors opened for the day, the staff would sit down at one of the mangled cafeteria-style tables to pray out loud together. Being a rookie, I mostly listened. There was this Greek woman on staff, and she would pray in English with a warm, velvety, accented voice for Jesus to “break our hearts today.”
At the time, this seemed kind of odd to me. I figured it was because English wasn’t her first language. I thought she must mean soften our hearts today.
Now I know she knew what she meant. Those big double doors flew open each day and the masses poured in like a flash flood. So many countries, so many wounds, so many needs, so many children. I was often the greeter for the day, sitting by the door with a cheat sheet for Hello, How many tickets? and Thank you in at least a dozen different languages. Secondhand sadness clung to me even from these casual encounters. In some cases, I learned to guess a person’s nationality by the particular shade of dejection on their face.
Sometimes it felt like too much, and I tuned out. I smiled and handed out meal tickets mechanically. I set up a wall in my heart, then hung a sign on the wall that said, That much loss will never be known here. You and I are basically different.
That is the opposite of compassion. Compassion is letting someone in so they’re no longer alone with their pain. And the when you’re in there with their pain, it gets all over you too. Sometimes all you can do is cry together.
I’m just now beginning to realize how much I shy away from brokenheartedness, my own and other people’s. Someone tells me they’re going through a hard time and instead of empathizing, I tell them to look on the bright side. I have a hard day and I try to shoulder it alone until I totally fall apart. On some level, sharing burdens feels like sharing germs.
So I guess that was a good prayer after all.
I never signed up to have my heart broken… or maybe I did. Jesus tried to warn me.