When I attended children’s church as a child we were asked to memorize a verse and recite it each week. Needless to say, I often found myself in the predicament of not having memorized my verse for the week so like many other kids. I frequently relied on what is known as the shortest verse in the bible: “Jesus wept”, found in John 11:35. That, I could remember! And so, from an early age I knew Jesus experienced deep emotions.
Recently, I reflected on the whole story in John 11 when Jesus raises Lazarus from the dead. I was taken aback by the deep emotional attunement demonstrated by Jesus in his interactions with Mary and Martha.
I suppose this should not be surprising since emotional attunement is the core of attachment bonds in any relationship formed in infancy and attachment styles enduring throughout adulthood. Attunement refers to the act of “tuning in to” another person’s emotional experience as the central factor that enable the attachment bonds to form.
More specifically, attunement refers to the synchronized dynamic between the mother and infant where a mother tunes into the child emotions and responds. As she responds, the mother is also impacted by the relational dynamic. The interesting thing is that this interaction is not independent of the other. When the baby and mother are in attunement they both experience positive emotions. This results in brain development and is at the core of learning social cues and interactions.
The context of the story is found in “v.32-35. It reads, “Therefore, when Mary came where Jesus was, she saw him and fell at his feet saying. ‘Lord, if you had been here my brother would not have died.’ When Jesus, therefore, saw her weeping, and the Jews who came with her, also weeping, He was deeply moved in spirit and was troubled. He said, ‘Where have you laid him?’ They said to Him, ‘Lord, come and see.’ Jesus wept.”
In this story Martha and Mary both respond to Jesus with the same comment: “If you had been here my brother would not have died”. Clearly, they both believed that he could have healed their brother. Martha appears to be satisfied with the intellectual answers. Jesus seems to meet her where she was and responded to her questions.
Mary on the other hand requires a different approach. When Jesus arrives, Martha runs out first but Mary had stayed behind. Jesus knows something about Mary – perhaps her need for reassurance, so he calls her personally. What instigates Jesus’ deep emotion was his experience of seeing her at his feet weeping, and those who have come to comfort her also weeping and entering into the pain of her experience. He is not unaffected by the experience. “He is deeply moved in his spirit and troubled.”
Jesus knew from the beginning that his intention was to raise Lazarus from the dead, hence it seems to me that it was not the death of Lazarus that stirs deep emotion in Jesus, but his attunement with Mary’s grief. He felt and entered Mary’s pain because her pain was as much a reality as the fact that he would raise Lazarus to life.
As I observe another person’s emotional experience, it changes my own emotional state. This attunement is what Dan Siegel describes as “feeling felt” by another. This “feeling felt” is what Mary must have experienced.
My emotional experience affects God and he is impacted by what I feel. We know from trauma treatment, that this neurological synchrony and feeling felt provides the groundwork for increased integration and healing.
An example of the power of feeling felt occurred to me recently in my clinical practice. As I was terminating with one of my clients I asked what was the most helpful about our time together. This resident caught me by surprise when she replied, “you cried with me”. To her, the strongest point of reintegration and healing came at that most simple moment.
Juliet Caceres, Psy.D., is the Director of Clinical Operations, where she provides leadership and management of the clinical system to ensure the highest quality residential services. Additionally, she facilitates many of the groups and provides individual therapy. Dr. Caceres is also the Clinical Spirituality Director. She supervises and trains a group of committed Christian primary and family therapists as well as the Chaplin at Timberline Knolls. Dr. Cáceres has worked as a licensed psychotherapist for more than 20 years. Prior to Timberline Knolls, she worked at crisis centers providing child and adolescent counseling, Christian clinics, community mental health agencies, provided marriage and relationship education, and trained professionals on marriage education curricula nationwide.