The Offering of Empathy

I’ve been sitting on this post for over a month now, and I keep starting and then immediately quitting it. The central theme of a society that is sorely lacking in empathy just gets my blood pressure skyrocketing so much that I find it difficult for my brain to form sentences. Add to that the frustration that those who really need to hear this message will ignore or dismiss it. I know this because, in the days since white supremacists congregated on a college campus to spew their racist rhetoric, hatred, and vitriol, white folks have been all over social media defending themselves with phrases like “I’m not privileged…I didn’t grow up rich” (can’t even with that one), or “I work hard for everything I’ve got”.  So much defending, so little listening.  But I realized that this is something that I just need to say, even if I’m only saying it to myself. I process so much of what I’m feeling internally, that if I don’t get it out, I might seriously lose my shit. So here you have it. Writing is my self care and is ultimately what will keep me from engaging in pointless Facebook debates that go nowhere. We’ve all been there, amiright? It is a dark, black hole that I do not wish to get sucked into.

Where have all the lovers gone?

The events in Charlottesville this week were the catalyst that forced me to sit down and write this, but it’s a subject that has come up in at least five different conversations these last few weeks among people that I love, and here it is:

NO ONE KNOWS HOW TO EMPATHIZE.

And the real shocker? The church is one of the biggest offenders.

Yep, I said it. And I stand by it. Because while white supremacist jackholes are the subjects of today’s news, what you don’t see as much (because no one wants to talk about that elephant) is people professing to love Jesus but unwilling to look through the lens of someone suffering through everyday life difficulties. It is the common denominator in conversations that are happening in my own living room with friends that I love dearly. They’re in a tough season and navigating some really hard things and this is the time for their friends and spiritual family to step up and love them but…..crickets.

Sounds strange, right? Isn’t that what the Christian community should be known for? Our empathy towards the downtrodden? The maligned? Those in crisis? The answer is yes. But for some reason, many Christians have lost sight of the fact that empathy is the core of ministry. Without empathy, it is impossible to effectively minister to a broken world. If you claim to love Jesus, you don’t get to just wipe your hands of someone’s struggle just because it makes you uncomfortable, inconvenienced, or because you don’t agree with how they handled it.

Now let me preface the admonishment I’m about to hand out. First, this doesn’t apply to events regarding racism. NO, NO, NO. That is a systemic issue created by the perpetrators alone. I will hear no talk of anyone needing to “pull themselves up by their own bootstraps”.  As Martin Luther King, Jr. says, you can’t do that if you don’t have boots. Systemic racism has robbed generations of minorities of the resources for success and yet society expects minds, hearts, bodies, and bank accounts to heal without the benefit of help.

Secondly, some folks love to just wallow in their garbage and if that’s the case, leave ’em alone and let ’em wallow. Toxic people that are addicted to drama do not get to demand your time and emotional energy.  Ain’t nobody got time fuh ‘dat.

If that’s not the case, however, then there is no “sin” so great that should ever cause a believer to give up on someone when they are in need of compassion. That divorcee?  He’s hurting. He’s grieving. You don’t get to say “this is too messy for me to be involved in it” or “I can’t handle your drama”.  That addict? She’s hurting. She’s struggling. You don’t get to say, “Well you should have known better”, or “You made the wrong choices”.  This is especially true if that person’s choices have not affected you personally. That person of color? They’re struggling with the events that have unfolded on the news this week.  You don’t get to say, “Let’s just stop talking about it” or “But I didn’t own slaves!”.  Stop defending. Stop judging. STOP MAKING IT ABOUT YOU!

What I am addressing here is real life people that are in hard seasons and are in desperate need of compassion and care, even if their pain is a direct result of poor choices. Time and again I have witnessed friends and family members (including myself) that have been “ghosted” by church members, neighbors, and friends when they are in the trenches of life. Suddenly, excuses abound and they are left to navigate their trials alone.

What is Empathy?

Because she is the ultimate communicator, I will let Brené Brown explain this.  Please take two and a half minutes to have your mind opened by this concept:

For those of you that didn’t click and watch the video, I will bottom line it for you.  Having empathy requires four things:

  1. Perspective taking.  This requires you actually attempting to see the world through someone else’s lens.
  2. Staying out of judgment.  This also requires listening.  That means that unless they ask you “what do you think I can do differently?”, you shut your pie hole.
  3. Recognizing emotion in other people.  Are they sad? Angry? Scared? Make an effort to interpret how they’re feeling.
  4. Communicating all of that. This is when you get to act out the new perspective, free of judgment, and affirm their emotions with your words and body language.

In short, empathy merely requires you to stop thinking and talking about yourself or your opinions and just step into the world of a hurting person. Bonus: IT’S FREE!  You may not ever fully be able to relate (just as I cannot understand the plight and struggle of my African American friends in regards to the prejudice they endure), but you can try.  I know what it feels like to be misunderstood, and as a woman, I definitely know what it feels like to be judged unfairly because of my physical attributes. Obviously, it pales in comparison, but I have the ability (and dare I say the RESPONSIBILITY) to look within myself and locate a modicum of similarities and use it to help my black brothers and sisters feel heard, seen, understood.

Empathy is our offering to humanity. It is an opportunity to step outside of ourselves to feel the pain and suffering of our fellow man, but empathy demands action.  It is not a feel good movie and hearty cry.  It empowers us to be a catalyst for true advocacy.  So that we (and I’m talking to myself here too) do not run the risk of merely hearing this truth without making that knowledge a part of us, I encourage you today to think of a loved one in your life that is hurting.  Get their perspective on what is causing their hurt and do so without judgment.  Understand their feelings, and then communicate that.

A lovely woman that I’ve never met recently reached out to me on Facebook to thank me for something I shared the other day concerning the events in Charlottesville.  I didn’t fix her problem, and I didn’t excuse my lack of involvement in the events (even though it was clear to her that I wasn’t).  I merely said, “I understand and I will not make excuses. I will do my part to enact change.”  She simply appreciated that I even took the time to address it.

You will be surprised at the difference the simple gesture of “I am sorry this is happening” will make.

Photo by Milada Vigerova on Unsplash

 

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