Empathy: Day One

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Empathy: the ability to understand and share the feelings of another.

I intend to spend this week learning about and writing about empathy. It is my goal to not only understand it by Friday, but to have it. That’s a tall order for a narcissist like me.

Empathy is not something Jesus talked about as much as it was something He exhibited. Often the scripture says of Jesus that He was “moved with compassion.” For instance: “Seeing the people, He felt compassion for them, because they were distressed and dispirited like sheep without a shepherd” (Matthew 9:36). This would surely be a statement of empathy. How would He know they were “distressed” and “dispirited” if He couldn’t somehow climb inside of their reality and feel what they feel? How would He know they were like sheep without a shepherd if He couldn’t somehow share their pasture?

But this empathy doesn’t start and end with Jesus; it springs from God the Father. How about this from Psalms 103:13-14: “Just as a father has compassion on his children, So the Lord has compassion on those who fear Him. For He Himself knows our frame; He is mindful that we are but dust (Psalm 103:13-14). In other words, God is aware of our limitations. He understands that about us and shares that feeling. That’s huge. This is even before coming to earth as a human being (the ultimate in standing in someone else’s shoes!)

Here is one thing that empathy requires — it requires that you get out of yourself. To put yourself in someone else’s shoes, you must first get out of your own, and this is not easy, especially for one like me who spends almost all my time locked inside my own feelings. I do this because, to a certain extent, it is required by my writing. I get very familiar with my own feelings so I can write about them, and in doing so, I connect with you, because we are both human, and my feelings at some point are bound to correspond to yours. But this is not necessarily understanding you; it is merely going further into myself. My connection with you is your doing, not mine.

When our family was in therapy during sessions at Chandler’s treatment in Wyoming, Chandler painted a picture of us as me isolated in a corner trying to keep to myself, Marti jumping up and down on the couch trying to get everyone’s attention, and himself, standing up on a desk, lording it over us. He was spot on accurate. And though facing this should have helped us all to become less dysfunctional, I must say that I have pretty much stayed in my corner. For me to have empathy, I have to come out of my corner, out into the center of the room and engage with whoever is there. Maybe it’s Chandler, or Marti, or maybe it’s you. That’s risky. That’s scary. But that’s how it works. That’s where empathy starts.

Empathy requires getting out of yourself and into someone else to the extent that you can actually feel their feelings like Jesus felt the distress of the people around Him. Empathy is a requirement if we are to be out in the marketplace connecting with people. First step: get out of our own shoes.

Rejoice with those who rejoice, and weep with those who weep. Be of the same mind toward one another; do not be haughty in mind, but associate with the lowly. Do not be wise in your own estimation.  Romans 12:15-16

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10 Responses to Empathy: Day One

  1. peter leenheer says:

    Walk a mile in my shoes, walk a mile in my shoes,
    Hey before you abuse, criticize and accuse,
    Walk a mile in my shoes.
    This is the refrain from Joe South’s song that I have never forgotten, from time to time I look it up to remind myself to not jump to conclusions.

  2. Steve Peery says:

    I was once again struck by you my dear brother in Christ! The man I am familiar with is one who showed humility and empathy, when all he had to do was turn and walk the others way because he was tired after speaking to those who clamored for a word from Him after a concert. I had stood a bit off from everyone watching you and wondering if I could get a chance to say thank you for you bring the musician you are, putting into song so many wonderful scriptures so the rest of us could remember God’s word better.
    All of the sudden you left a conversation you having with someone and came to me and said something, I don’t recall, but we began talking and I was humbled that you saw me there. I have had the great pleasure of having several amazing people in my life who have shaped my character but I remember you quite often when I feel inadequate or less than. I remember how Good showed me that I, none of us are, am not inadequate. That He is near and that night just has always been a tool to bring me out of feeling any off the devil’s arrows of depression or “aloneness”.

    Well, I haven’t written to you in many years, so much has gone on and many good things in your life I have seen. I enjoy getting your “catch”. God is at work in us to do His good pleasure, for sure.

    God bless you and your family greatly my good friend,

    Steve Peery

  3. kellief4 says:

    What’s discouraging is when you THINK you are empathetic, and then something happens to make you realize you aren’t, or you have a long ways to go. It’s a journey, and you have to keep making the trip over and over, for each different person and situation.

    • Steve Peery says:

      That is so true about empathy in that it is different towards each person we combat in touch with. I do however think that God gives it and may not really be something we can manufacture. Although when you do see a need and address it even when you might be down, well that is kind of manufacturing empathy, but there again, I believe God gives it. Glory to God!

  4. Mark D Seguin says:

    Great verse about Today’s Catch: “Rejoice with those who rejoice, and weep with those who weep. Be of the same mind toward one another; do not be haughty in mind, but associate with the lowly. Do not be wise in your own estimation.” Romans 12:15-16

  5. Once there was a farmer whose dog had delivered a litter of puppies. The farmer put up a large sign that read “Puppies for Sale,” and the next day a young boy came to buy one. He proudly pulled out his money saying, “I have 39 cents. I hope that is enough.” Even though the farmer had in mind much more money than that, he kindly said, “That’s exactly how much they cost.”

    The boy was so excited as the farmer opened the barn and out came the most adorable little puppies. “Which one do you want?” the farmer asked. Just then, one more puppy came hobbling along. It was clear that something was wrong with its hind legs.

    The boy went straight for that puppy and said, “I’d like this one!” “No you don’t,” said the farmer, “Can’t you see he has something wrong with his legs?” The boy picked up his trousers to reveal metal braces on each of his legs. “So do I,” said the boy. “And he’s going to need someone who understands him.”

    Don’t we all?!

  6. Andrew P. says:

    Brene (can’t put the right accent over the last e) Brown, I’m told, illustrates the difference between sympathy and empathy as follows. When a person is in a pit too deep to climb out of, and no ladder is available, sympathy is when we pass by, we say, “I’m so sorry you’re in that pit. I’d get you out if I could.” Empathy, though, is when we climb down into the pit with them and say, “I’m not going anywhere without you.” The metaphor has obvious limits, in that if the individual is, say, clinically depressed, we can’t (and surely shouldn’t) get depressed with them, but I think that it’s a helpful metaphor, nonetheless.

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