Empathy requires that we step outside ourselves. Empathy requires a level of selflessness that may be a hard reach for some. Once again, Jesus would be our example, who gave up His right to be God in order to be a human being. Jesus was in our shoes the whole time because He shed His God-shoes when He was born in Bethlehem (Philippians 2:5-8).
I can’t walk a mile in someone else’s shoes if I still have my own shoes on. I can’t put a shoe inside a shoe. If I could I’d be defeating my purpose. I would still be in my own shoes. I have to first take off my own shoes to get into someone else’s, and that is tantamount to getting outside of myself. Getting beyond my own self-importance. Making it more important to understand than to be understood.
This is a big step and hard to accomplish when I’ve been spending my whole life wrapped around myself. This means I’m going to have to get away from my favorite topic — me — and on to someone else. Like that great Bette Midler line from the movie, Beaches, “Enough of me, what do you think of me?” Or the story about a friend of ours who was at his wife’s side while she was in labor, and at one point she said that she was cold, to which he replied, “Really? I’m not cold.” This would be a pretty clear example of a failure to have empathy.
These steps are pretty much common sense, but easily overlooked. I’ve tried having empathy when my mind is full of its own thoughts, points of view and rationalizations. Can’t do it. My own shoes are still on. Getting into someone else’s shoes involves a good deal of listening and paying attention. I’m not going to have empathy for someone if I don’t understand their situation.
There is an article in the paper this morning about a conflict in a local Christian college over their treatment of LGBTQ students when a ban was lifted on same-sex relationships and later reinstated due to pressure from administration and donors. Now if we were going to empathize with the students who feel like something was given and later taken away, we would need to hear them out. Get inside their shoes and see the world from their perspective. We would need to pay attention to them, not as a group, but as individuals and fellow Christians. And if we were going to empathize with the administration that made the decision, we would have to do the same thing. Get to know a few as individuals and fellow Christians and find out why they felt like they had to do what they did. We may not agree with the students or the administration, but we will understand them better. We will know why they feel what they’re feeling. We will probably have some compassion for both sides, and though there may not be a simple solution to the conflict, there will be a better chance of living together with the conflict if there is empathy.
I am one with my wife. If there is anyone I should have empathy for, it would be her. Am I seeking to understand her? After all these years, do I? Am I standing inside her shoes? Have her concerns become my concerns, even if they are things that don’t naturally concern me? Do I feel her pain? Am I doing whatever I can to alleviate it? Am I bringing her joy, because I know by now what does? Am I making sure she stays warm, even if I’m not cold?
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