Sometimes feeling empathy comes naturally, but occasionally we need to do the work of finding it.
I remember being a gawky eight-year-old, sitting on the orange carpet of my grandmother’s basement, watching an after-school special with my cousins. In the show, a group of bullies were picking on an intellectually disabled boy. He had no idea, and laughed with them, not understanding they were humiliating him.
I was so deeply upset by this, I sobbed uncontrollably into one of my grandmother’s throw pillows. I remember my cousin John looking at me like I was insane. I couldn’t physically tolerate the cruelty of these children, or the helplessness of the disabled boy.
That intense emotion has stuck with me my entire life. I often can’t watch movies with people who are victims of others’ senseless cruelty. I want to make the world right, and I get extremely agitated when I can’t. I’ve heard writer’s and creative types tend to be more empathetic than others, so maybe it’s tied in with God’s calling for me.
Others struggle with empathy. Why they struggle varies. What’s important to know is it’s a choice. We choose to see, listen and act. One who struggles with empathy can become empathetic.
I find this often comes life experience, which often means suffering. Watching my best friend lose her husband in a helicopter crash opened my heart to the experience of grief. Struggling with infertility introduced me to the tragedies of faith crises, unfulfilled longing, and relentless waiting. Deployments have brought me to my knees, broken and hopeless. Depression has allowed me to understand why people choose suicide. All of these events in my life have led to a deeper empathy for those who hurt, especially in these areas.
I struggle to be empathetic in other ways. I’ve recently acknowledged a lack of compassion for the poor. Like many people who’ve never experienced it, I see it as a series of bad choices. But my choice to live out my faith means caring for the least of these. I’ve been forced to learn more about what it is to be underprivileged in America. I understand now it’s a much more complicated issue, and many of our systems are set up to keep people from overcoming poverty. And I, personally, have many privileges I did not earn that keep me from want. Sure, I’ve chosen to be responsible with my money, but I have also been given financial support my entire life. I can’t say I worked myself up from the bottom. It’s easy to stay at the top if that’s where you start.
So why show empathy?
Because it is what God did for us when He sent Christ to die for us. Christ lived for 33 years before He died, and in those 33 years he felt loss, fear, temptation, longing. Christ was human in order to empathize with our struggle against sin and separation from our Heavenly Father.
When our empathy leads us to compassion, God’s work can be done on earth.
But first we have to understand struggle ourselves. Then we have to step out into those scary, uncomfortable places and listen. We have to put aside our political leanings and preconceived beliefs, and be willing to take in new information. As I’ve said before, this isn’t about changing our beliefs on an issue. It’s just a willingness to understand where another person is coming from. It is much easier to empathize with someone when we know their personal story, and not the perception we have of a group they belong in.
So how do you find empathy?
First, think of all the areas of suffering you’ve experienced and consider how you can empathize with people going through similar issues.
Second, realize where you struggle with empathy. Then take the time to listen to news, hear stories, maybe even watch TV shows that represent that point of view. Keep an open mind, because there’s likely something you’ve never considered before. Finding an aspect of their story you can relate will help you find empathy.
Once you find empathy, compassion can follow. Compassion is how we can share the Gospel with others. It’s how we foster change in the world.
So, what areas of life do you practice empathy? What areas do you need to work on? Share your findings in the comments and let’s talk about how you can find empathy that will lead you to compassion!