I thought this week we might be served by a clear outline, one which cuts through the usual executional fluff of my writing.
Our goal: As I see things, empathy could easily be the highest virtue of Christianity. Restorative justice, sacrificial love, grace: these qualities of God, when we carry them out, all share empathy as a root motivation. Empathy, to be clear, is recognizing the equal humanity of someone else and consequently caring for that someone else almost as much as you care about yourself. Both motive and act here are called empathy and empathy is easier said then done. In this letter, I will suggest techniques that I have found effective, and hope will be likewise effective for you, in cultivating empathy.
Theological housekeeping: Why is this virtue (as both motive and act) merely called empathy and not practicing empathy, or living out empathy or something like that? This is because we believe in the unity of thought and action. If you think you believe something yet don’t make it real in your life, you don’t actually believe it. Does that mean you don’t love Jesus if you sin? No, of course not. However, it does mean that you should lift up your unbelief when you ask for forgiveness. My lack of faith is complicit in any sin I commit. As the father of the sick child, said to Jesus: “Lord, I believe; help my unbelief!” [Mark 9:24 NKJV], which demonstrates faith is not a binary thing, where you have it or you don’t. It is an evolution within the self towards God. Furthermore, it is your job to progress in faithfulness, and sin is by definition a step backwards in your path of progress. Empathy then, as a part of living out faith, is not real as something that merely goes on between your ears, but rather as something that goes on between you and the rest of God’s creation.
As in all things of eternal resonance, this is beyond our skill level. We need help. We must embrace the Holy Spirit, in her capacity as enabler, in order to be empathetic. Furthermore, we must be motivated. You have to want it. I’m aware that’s football coach-esque “get pumped” type language, but there is an emotional component and your emotions have to be in line with your desire to act for others more. Plain and simple, you have to want to show the world love. There are a lot of different little things you can use as motivational touchstones, for you to return to from time to time in order to retain momentum. Next week will talk about that, but more than anything, you should work out with God why you want to be God-like in your actions. Moving beyond “be good for goodness sake” is really complex, I feel.
Three pieces of advice:
1. Take note of the physiological reality of the other person’s perspective. That is, when you interact with someone, briefly reflect on the fact that in that person there is a self, and (for example) that self is seeing a shadow of their nose in the middle of their face. Said self is also interacting with you. Be aware of his awareness. Think about the fact that she is also thinking. Neither one of you is more or less real than the other; both are if you are equally important in your respective realities. Now continue to interact with that other person, for whom, incidentally, Jesus died.
2. Act with intentionality. That kind of sounds abstract and Zen, and, well, silly, but it matters. Slow down. Breathe. Think about what you’re doing. Think about what you’re doing in the context of Christianity. Then proceed. Admittedly it’s hard to be slow in this fast world. That’s the point though. When things are going too quickly for you to act with intentionality, slow down. Be intentional, be intentionally Christian.
3. Read travel writing. Admittedly, I say this in no small part because I’ve been stuck in Cambridge all Spring Break, and what spare time I’ve had has been spent dreaming of escape. Nonetheless, travel writing does facilitate empathy (perhaps, in this case, for me). Reading it, at least for me, almost invariably has to do with places I’ve never been. In this way, reading travel writing does not allow me to bring along expectations. It’s hard to have expectations for the foreign, not truly, not in the bone-deep way that I have expectations for me and mine. Thus, travel writing is training for participating without expectations. You learn to take things as they are before you. Taking things as they are before you allows you to be more empathetic. As time goes on, our expectations are not met, and when our expectations are not met, we are disappointed. Disappointment is a flat tire to empathy, leaving us without the ability to continue. Consequently, we need to learn to proceed without expectations (especially unreasonable ones) lest they interfere with our pursuit of Christ-like empathy. However, should you expect and should your expectations not be met, there is also something to be said for just dusting yourself off and coming back again. I think I remember reading somewhere that Jesus did that once too.
Yours in Christ,