Compassion is sometimes the fatal capacity for feeling what it is like to live inside somebody else's skin. It is the knowledge that there can never really be any peace and joy for me until there is peace and joy finally for you too.
I don't suppose we really understand the difference between empathizing and sympathizing with another until we find our way "inside their skin" for just a while. Some time back, we faced some challenges as a leadership team - kind of a "we" - "they" type of situation in which one group of staff didn't feel the other knew what it was like to work their job. In essence, we did a "walk in my shoes" kind of experiment, allowing each other to see just how crazy and totally awesome each person's job actually was. Crazy busy, insanely hard at times, but also very rewarding and tremendously satisfying. We were asking them to "get inside each other's skin" for just a short period of time, so there would be a little bit of understanding and compassion toward each other rather than all the complaining that "they never" or "they don't get it". In short, it worked! Why? When we experience just a portion of what another experiences, we somehow connect with them in just a small way.
Is there any encouragement from belonging to Christ? Any comfort from his love? Any fellowship together in the Spirit? Are your hearts tender and compassionate? Then make me truly happy by agreeing wholeheartedly with each other, loving one another, and working together with one mind and purpose. Don’t be selfish; don’t try to impress others. Be humble, thinking of others as better than yourselves. Don’t look out only for your own interests, but take an interest in others, too. (Philippians 2:1-4 NLT)
As Buechner says, there can "never be any peace and joy for me until there is peace and joy finally for you, too". This is the essence of the sacrifice of Christ on our behalf - no peace and joy for him until it was finally and completely known by us, as well. Most of us realize what it is to go through hard times, feeling that we are in the midst of such pain and no one really knows what we are going through. I haven't had breast cancer, but I can see the tremendous effect it has on your strength as you struggle through the chemo. Do I need to experience chemo to know your agony? No, because I can see the havoc it brings to your body, family, and spirit. My real prayer is that you know peace and joy once again in your body, soul, and spirit. I may not ever get "inside your skin", but my heart breaks with compassionate understanding that you are going through the fight of your life.
Inside your skin may dwell fears untold, yet you go on. Inside your skin may be the pain and suffering of hopelessness from the loss of someone who left you with little more than a broken heart, yet you struggle on. Inside your skin may be someone crying out for someone to just care enough to come alongside, yet you cry in silence because you don't give voice to those cries. Your brokenness doesn't escape the notice of Jesus - and it shouldn't escape the notice of each of us, either. We may never truly "get inside your skin", but we can walk alongside you close enough that we begin to feel as though we were!
God will always exceed our expectations - humans may not - yet I am certain of this one thing - when God knows our troubles, there is always a strength and joy that isn't our own. Sometimes what another experiences when they "get inside our skin" for just a while is this strength God has placed there to walk where it is we are walking at this very moment. They actually begin to realize the peace of God because it dwells within us. God doesn't send us into the lives of others to just "get", but to "give" and "experience" - to share what he gives, to be open to experiencing just a little bit more of his grace by giving away the measure we have been given. Just sayin!