Wednesday, July 11, 2007

“E” is for Empathy
“There but for the grace of God go I.”

This is the fifth installment of a twelve-week summer series based on the anagram "GRACE HAPPENS," each letter representing a quality that equips us to be "Grace Happening People."

Empathy has been described as the ability to “walk in another’s shoes.” If you’ve ever literally walked in another’s Reeboks, then you know how uncomfortable it can feel. The shoes have taken on the shape of their owner’s feet—they feel great to them because their shoes fit like a glove. But on your feet, they never will feel comfy. Figuratively speaking, walking in another’s shoes is a difficult fit as well, but it’s vital that we develop the ability to imagine and understand the perspectives of other people.

When I was a child, I remember how upset my mom would get when people were being judgmental of someone’s “bad” behavior or making fun of people because of the way they dress or talk. She tried to cultivate in her children a state of compassionate humility fostered by the realization that it is only by the grace of God that I am not the object of criticism or ridicule for something I’ve done or for who I am as a person. Mom would say, “There but for the grace of God go I”, and this phrase echoes in my head even today, reminding me to be empathic rather than judgmental or ridiculing.

The following story epitomizes the concept of empathy:

Once a monk and his apprentice traveled from the abbey to a nearby village. The two parted at the city gates agreeing to meet the next morning after completing their tasks. According to plan, they met and began the long walk back to the abbey. The monk noticed that the younger man was unusually quiet. He asked him if anything was wrong. “What business is it of yours?” came the terse response. Now the monk was sure his brother was troubled, but he said nothing. The distance between the two began to increase. The apprentice walked slowly, as if to separate himself from his teacher. When the abbey came in sight, the monk stopped at the gate and waited on the student. “Tell me, my son. What troubles your soul?” The boy started to react again, but when he saw the warmth in his master’s eyes, his heart began to melt. “I have sinned greatly,” he sobbed. “Last night I slept with a woman and abandoned my vows. I am not worthy to enter the abbey at your side.” The teacher put his arm around the student and said, “We will enter the abbey together. And we will enter the cathedral together. And together we will confess your sin. No one but God will know which of the two of us fell.”

Grace Happening people realize that we all “fall from grace” from time to time. And like the monk, we need to gracefully extend an arm of support and a heart of compassion to others when they make poor choices.

There are other scenarios when empathy is needed as well. For example, I want to turn a blind eye to the pain and poverty and loss surrounding me. I don’t want to look at these realities, let alone slip into those shoes, even if only in my imagination. It just takes me too close for comfort to the “there but for the grace of God go I” of disease, divorce, the death of a loved one, the devastation of natural disasters, depression… I’d rather offer a quick prayer or send a donation than to get the galoshes of my tender heart muddy.

And in the little dramas of daily life— a pesky sibling, a traffic jam, an itchy mosquito bite, a critical boss, a gossipy neighbor—an empathic response acknowledging the feelings of your resident whiner can work wonders. So before you blurt out, “You’re making a mountain out of a mole hill!”, “cloth yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience” (Colossians 3:12) and step forward shod in the soft soled shoes of empathy.

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