One of the most important ideas in Charles William’s Descent into Hell is called “The Doctrine of Substituted Love.” This is William’s attempt to apply the Christian principle of bearing one another’s burdens (...and so fulfilling the Law of Christ) in a way that goes beyond the common interpretation of this Christian imperative. Most people interpret “bearing one another’s burdens” to mean helping each other out in practical ways. But he wants to see it as something deeper, a core principle of the universe, the principle by which Christ could bear the sins of the world. So Williams invents the metaphysical possibility of actually bearing someone else’s fear (and one assumes other negative emotions) so that the other no longer experiences it.
In the novel, the staretz-like old poet Stanhope bears on behalf of Pauline her fear of meeting her double. (One might argue that this is an irrational fear, so Stanhope is merely playing a psychological trick on Pauline. But my experience is that almost all crippling fear is irrational, and psychological tricks almost never work. If they did, several pharmaceutical companies would go out of business.) Stanhope imagines (or something like imagines) Pauline’s fearful experience and feels her fear for her. And because Pauline accepts that Stanhope will bear her fear, she doesn’t experience any.
I like the fact that Williams is trying to find a deeper meaning and application for bearing one another’s burdens, but from an Orthodox Christian perspective, I think he is off the mark here. Emotions such as fear are of course normal and healthy when indeed there is something that one should fear. However, fear becomes unhealthy, becomes what the Church might call a passion, when it is debilitating or is based on unreality. Deliverance from passions only comes through confession and repentance (and maybe some plain old counseling), a process generally requires the guidance and encouragement of someone wiser and more spiritually experienced than yourself. While it is possible for one person to hold in his or her heart other people (even the whole world, I am told) and suffer with them (i.e. com-passion), I do not think it is possible to transfer the suffering away from one person onto oneself.
But I do agree with Williams that there is a deeper meaning and application for bearing one another’s burdens. I would like to suggest that one Orthodox Christian way to understand the bearing of another’s burdens can be evoked by looking at some of Jesus’ sayings from the Sermon on the Mount. Some of the well know and seldom practiced sayings include “turn the other cheek” and “go the extra mile.” Thinking about St. Paul’s exhortation to bear one another’s burdens while reflection on the Sermon on the Mount, I get the impression that bearing the burden of the other has a lot to do with bearing with, putting up with, and accepting the inconvenient, nettlesome, tiring, and sometimes rude, hurtful or maybe just boring behavior of your neighbor (the ones near you).
[Disclaimer: Whenever I say something along this line I must make clear that I am not talking about putting up with long-term violent and abusive behavior. Generally in such cases the most loving thing to do (under the guidance of a counselor or pastor) is to flee, and leave the abuser to learn from the consequences of his or her actions.]
Most of the time, however, bearing the burden of another not a matter of heroic might. It is a matter of gentle endurance, kindness in response to thoughtlessness, mercy toward the shortcomings of others, patience when others don’t see how important something is to you, and stubborn refusal to fight fire with fire. To bear the burdens of others is to prefer to suffer than to cause others to suffer.