Empathy is Hard. Do it Anyway.
We’ve talked a lot about empathy lately on Sunday mornings. What exactly are we referring to?
First off, empathy is not sympathy. Sympathy has to do with pity and experiencing sadness for another person, while empathy is much deeper. A quick Google search will define empathy as “the ability to understand and share the feelings of another.” It is our willingness to see reality from a different perspective; to put ourselves into the shoes of another person and truly experience their world.
Empathy is an act of love. It is the gift of presence. To enter into someone else’s experience, not with an agenda to change them, but simply to be with them in their current space. To let them know they are not alone; that they are valued and accepted, even if we disagree with them. Perhaps, especially if we disagree with them.
For us within the church, I don’t believe that empathizing with those who are different is simply a nice idea; I believe it’s the way of Jesus. Peterson paraphrases his words in Matthew like this: “If all you do is love the lovable, do you expect a bonus? Anybody can do that. If you simply say hello to those who greet you, do you expect a medal? Any run-of-the-mill sinner does that.” In other words, nobody’s impressed if all we do is love those who are easy to love and empathize with those who are like us. The reason this is difficult, and rare, is because empathy requires something of us that scares us. You see, we are all desperately trying to make sense of our world (it’s why our brains make first impressions so quickly – we need to put things into categories to give us the illusion that we understand them), and empathy threatens to blow apart our categories and boxes and expand our minds and hearts into new territory. It’s disruptive and uncomfortable and causes us to reconfigure our worldviews to make space for another’s experience.
This is why empathy is dangerous. It will change you. It will not let you stay where you are. To let down our defenses and admit that there are other legitimate ways to view a particular situation or topic can feel very threatening. Once you truly see the world from someone else’s vantage point, you can’t un-see it. You might even find that their questions become your questions. Their perspectives may become your perspectives. Your worldview will be challenged and forced to adapt.
If we don’t like change or are not willing to endure the discomfort of growth, empathy may not be for us. Honestly, it’s simpler, and a lot more comfortable, to spend our days listening to those who are like us, reading articles and listening to podcasts that reinforce what we already believe, and thinking more about what we need to say to people than what we need to understand. If we do this, though, we can be sure that our world tomorrow will remain just as small as it is today.
As we move towards the vision that we believe God has for WMBC, our willingness and ability to practise empathy will play a key role. We want to see the perception of the church changed in our city so that all people will see the good and beautiful God that is at the heart of our faith community.
Before we can change the perception, however, we need to know the perception. This will require listening and empathizing with those who are outside of our church walls.
This month, identify 1-2 people to reach out to. This might be family, friends, coworkers, classmates, or even next-door neighbours. Start a conversation where your only intention is to hear their story and understand them better.
Empathy can feel scary. Empathy can feel dangerous. Let’s do it anyway.