Empathy: “The ability to lean in and identify with the difficulty of another. To understand, be sensitive towards, and share the plight of others.”
It sounds grand and romantic, “choose empathy”, choose to lean in and identify with the difficulty of another, but it is much harder than it sounds. In a world where we are surrounded by a so called “echo chamber” that reinforces our beliefs, our stories and people that think like us, it can be hard to find empathy for people that might not be like us. The Bible makes it absolutely clear though that we are to love our neighbour, but our neighbour is defined by the story of the good Samaritan as not just someone that shares our beliefs, our culture or our status in life but actually someone that could be considered our enemy. Jesus reinforces this in the sermon on the mount in Matt 5 when he tells us to pray for our enemies and love those who hate us. “You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor[i] and hate your enemy.’ 44 But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, 45 that you may be children of your Father in heaven.”
So if we are supposed to love and empathise with those who are different to us as well as those who are easy to love – how do we do that? I think there are a few simple things that we can do that will help us to move beyond our comfortable and to empathise with those whose stories might be very different to our own.
- Read more…. I know this sounds simple but just reading books about other people’s lives, other people’s experience and other perspectives can open your mind up to a whole new world of understanding. Obviously biographies are especially good for this but even the humble novel can help to show you the world from someone else’s perspective and perhaps just make it that much easier to choose empathy when you meet with people.
- Follow people that you don’t agree with or don’t understand. It can be very easy on social media to just follow the people that you agree with because that is comfortable, but it only allows you to see one side of a story. One of the best things that I have done this year is to change who I follow on twitter to include both sides of politics, different media sources that I wouldn’t normally agree with and some people that challenge my view on life. I often don’t agree with them but at least I can start to see from their point of view and I can begin to understand what drives them.
- Listen to people’s stories. One of the most powerful things in life to connect with people is to listen to their stories. Not only do we validate their experience by simply listening but we also take the focus off ourselves and our story which automatically helps us to identify with them.
- Make friends with someone who is different to you. This is self-explanatory but if we don’t have friends with different worldviews, beliefs, backgrounds or cultures then we can live in a bubble where we think everyone is like us. That is a dangerous place to be and also makes it virtually impossible to be empathetic to people that are different.
- Choose to see beyond the surface. I had the privilege of being taught by a child psychologist about how we perceive people’s actions. She likened it to an iceberg where the actions or behaviour of people is just the tip of the iceberg but it is the feelings and thoughts that make up the bulk of the iceberg below the surface. If we just look at people’s actions and behaviours without asking questions about how people might be feeling or thinking then we are only understanding a very small part. Her suggestion was to be curious, find out how people are thinking and feeling which might be influencing their actions. This is a key for choosing empathy.
- Finally PRAY. As Jesus commanded us in Matt 5, we are to pray for the people that persecute us, pray for our enemies. It seems counter-intuitive but Jesus always asked us to do the impossible and it is amazing what happens in our hearts as we begin to pray for those who we don’t understand and don’t want to love. And if we don’t know what to pray then He helps us there as well. Romans 8 promises us “In the same way, the Spirit helps us in our weakness. We do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us through wordless groans.”
You might already be doing one or more of these things so maybe try to do one of the others. The more we CHOOSE empathy, the more it becomes natural and instinctive. And if you are not doing any of these things – try just one and see where that takes you!
– Catherine Thambiratnam
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