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