When Someone Says:
“I Know How You Feel”

Each heart knows its own bitterness,
and no one else can share its joy.

— Proverbs 14:10

Reflections on a Proverbial Saying

Many years ago, when watching a movie at a theater with my wife, the storyline peaked with the bitter and prolonged weeping of a man who tragically lost his wife after only being with her for three years. The man was the epitome of an English gentleman, being quite composed and always in control, as any Oxford scholar was expected to be in that era. However, when it hit him that the love of his life was gone forever, all the English protocol was abandoned and the floodgates opened wide for him, and for me. I simply could not contain my tears.

A surge of contrasting emotions came over me. The intense joy of celebrating the consummation of a life well lived collided with the enormous heartbreak of this same life cut short. It was simply too much to endure. It was as though I entered into his loss when this array of emotions ran through me in ways I will likely never forget.

When I glanced over at my wife, she sat there with head in hand, donning a blank stare at the screen, with what looked like a desire for the movie to end soon. I was stunned. I could hardly believe her casual gaze. This is not to say my wife is an unfeeling person. Indeed, she can feel in ways far broader and deeper than I ever will. Nevertheless, in that theater at that moment I was amazed this gripping scene did not move her to tears. Later I realized she was teaching me a very important lesson about marriage, personal feelings, communication, and life with others. In fact, what I learned was what the ancient Hebrew writer meant when he wrote, “Each heart knows its own bitterness, and no one else can share its joy” (Proverbs 14:10, NIV).

When someone says “I know how you feel,” it makes me a little uneasy in a couple of ways. They usually mean well and try to offer comfort; but c’mon…can anyone really “know how I feel?” On one level, I ask “how does one ‘know’ a feeling?” I always thought you feel feelings and know thoughts. Granted we can be aware of feelings, but can we really “know” them as I know the NY Giants won the 42nd Super Bowl? After all, I didn’t “feel” like the Giants would win given their opponents’ perfect record for the season.

On another level, and perhaps one that most share, I wonder, “Can you really understand what I’m feeling?” After all, you’re not me. I’m me and you’re you. You may have things happen to you that are similar to things that happen to me, but you cannot really know how I feel because I am me and you are you, and we are not the same.

I can feel sad and you can feel sad about the same event, but your sadness may run deeper than mine. I could be reflecting on the plight of a 19th century common European farmer as I gaze at a Van Gogh painting, while you are waiting to move on to the next frame on the wall. You may be soaring the heights of emotion as you cheer for the Giants’ winning touchdown, while I am just wishing the power would go out on the television! The fact remains, I am me and you are you, and we are not the same.

Even if we experienced the same event, such as taking in a majestic Arizona sunset while sipping on a beautiful cabernet sauvignon, we still have our own unique reactions. You see, you can apprehend my feelings but you cannot comprehend them. You may approximate my feelings by comparing them with your own, but you cannot participate in my feelings as I do. After all, you’re not me; I’m not you. We are not the same.

I suspect this is close to what the writer was getting at when he penned the proverb “Each heart knows its own bitterness, and no one else can share its joy.” We carry angst in ways peculiar to us and no single heart shares the same degree of delight with another.

Still I wonder. Is the old writer saying something more? Is he is saying something to me about me? Is he giving me a kind of permission — the permission to have a private life where no one can or should enter? Perhaps he’s saying it’s okay for me to have my feelings and for you to have yours. Maybe it’s okay for you to enjoy the privacy of your own emotions without my “profound” insights breaking into your solitude. Maybe it’s okay for me to return the favor to myself and find some solace in my own soliloquy. After all, “Each heart knows its own bitterness, and no one else can share its joy.”

Upon further reflection, I wonder if the old writer is saying something to you about me or to me about you. Maybe our sage is giving us not only permission but also a kind of release from the burden of feeling like we have to “know how the other feels.” Since I cannot enter fully into your joy or you into my pain, I am set free from the tyrannical yet tacit rule of having to “know how you feel.” That you don’t have to encroach upon my inner life allows me the opportunity to feel my feelings and you are released from “knowing how I feel.” Consequently, you are then free to have your own feelings and I am released from having to know how you feel. Put differently, maybe it is enough for me to respect your quiet sanctuary and entrust you with you.

Even if I could articulate my feelings to you, my words would be a meager estimate because we may have the same vocabulary, but we don’t always use the same dictionary. I suspect, too, that my words about my feelings will fall short of capturing the full gamut of all that is going on within my heart. As Blaisé Pascal once said, “The heart has its reasons of which reason knows nothing.”

I think also that the release we are given and permission we are granted to leave each other alone with ourselves does not necessarily mean that we are alone. You see, many times your sheer wordless presence can provide sufficient comfort and satisfaction. This relationship of “being with me” does not have a geographical requirement. After all, my dear wife is spiritually present with me wherever I am, though not always spatially present to me. Unlike Job’s three friends who pretended to “help” with their constant counsel and spatial presence, our being present to the other in silence or present with the other in spirit can provide all the support necessary for the moment. Since you are with me, then I am with you, and so we are together and not alone. Nevertheless, we are still our own. Uniquely you; distinctly me. Privately public, yet publicly private.

I’m relieved to know that I don’t have to know how you feel. I hope you are relieved to know this for me. I’m relieved to know that I don’t require “therapy” because I can’t empathize in ways that are genuinely impossible. I’m relieved to know that I can be with my wife when she is feeling and that your being with me when I’m feeling is not only satisfying but sufficient. Whether spatially or spiritually, we are always separate, yet always together. I may be alone by myself, but never alone with myself because your perennial presence comforts me.

As for that day in the theater when you shed no tears, I can only express a huge sense of gratitude and deep appreciation for the lesson you taught me. Though I was stunned for the moment at your seeming lack of emotion, an important lesson was learned for our marriage, for our communication, and for living life with others. Thank you, Dear, for granting me the space to learn and the grace to feel. Though for me the wheels of wisdom often seem to grind at a snail’s pace, I’m gradually but certainly learning to appreciate that “Each heart knows its own bitterness, and no one else can share its joy.”

Selah!

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