When I was young, I was selfish, narcissistic even. I thought the world revolved around me. Yet, within that self-centered bubble, I would on occasion feel pain for another, such as the old lady alone on the park bench or the girl I sometimes bullied. Even in the dark mind I had let myself create, the good in me would at times shine through.
As I grew up, I grew out of my self-centered ways and became more caring of the world around me. However, as I learned to handle my own feelings and emotions better and care for others, I began feeling that taking on the pain of those around me was a counterproductive idea. For example, if I encountered someone with mental illness, would it be helpful to share that I too was feeling angry and alone (as they possibly were)?
What Does it Mean to Carry the Yolk of Others?
The idea of carrying another is alluded to in the Torah. Moshe turns to Hashem and protests, “Alone, I cannot carry this entire people for it is too heavy for me. If this is the way You treat me, please kill me if I have found favor in Your eyes, so that I not see my misfortune.” (Bamidbar 11:13-14). In response to Moshe’s terror, Hashem gave him 70 elders to help carry the people together.
Carrying the yolk of others means to carry their burden on your shoulders, to feel their pain. However, it must only be done to the extent that one can handle. Alone, Moshe could not carry the yolk of the entire Jewish people. The weight was too strong. Together with 70 elders, he was able to.
Similarly, when my younger self took a break from being selfish and narcissistic to care for the pain of others, my intuitive reaction was to debilitate myself when feeling others’ pain. But that is a counterproductive reaction. When feeling for another in pain, we must ensure we can handle it while still helping carry as much weight as we can.
Why is it so Important to Carry Another’s Pain?
Imagine that you share with your friend a tough story which makes you feel scared, angry, and alone. As you finish your story, you see tears well up in your friend’s eyes. Wouldn’t you feel a bit less lonely for a moment? Wouldn’t you feel a fraction of your pain is now lifted off of your shoulders?
An additional benefit to carrying someone else’s pain, according to noted scholar Rabbi Avarham Twerski, is that it gives one the ability to truly see someone else. For years, there was a person in my life whom I judged harshly. One day, a different friend explained the hardships that that person faces who I had judged harshly. I let the tears roll and truly felt sadness for that person in my heart. From then on, I tried to treat that person more with empathy than with harshness. If I had opened myself up to carrying and feeling this person’s pain, perhaps I would have been able to understand them better.
Carrying The Yolk of Mental Illness
One of the hardest yolks to carry is the pain of living with a mental illness. When a mind is weak and not healthy, it can be a very scary place to enter. One might hesitate to allow in the pain of a friend’s mental illness for fear of not being able to keep the pain under control. How does one allow themselves to think of someone else’s scary, even suicidal thoughts?
While allowing the pain of a mental illness in may seem daunting, I believe that if we follow the lesson which Hashem taught Moshe, we can learn to carry the yolk. Granted, we must be sure to carry only what we can and only in order to empathize and love deeper.
There’s too much pain in this world for anybody to suffer in isolation.
Do you agree it is critical to make the effort to carry and feel the pain of others? Please join the conversation below.