Do you ever have one of those weeks when it seems like a particular word or idea is following you around, popping up in completely unrelated places? (Maybe this is just a phenomenon known to preachers…) This week, there was one word that appeared in at least five different contexts for me. I have learned to pay attention when this happens, and to at least ask myself if that’s what I should be preaching, come Sunday.
This week the word was empathy. When it popped up in a devotional reading on Monday, I didn’t give it much thought. When it appeared a couple of times on Tuesday, I tucked it away as an interesting approach to this week’s readings. On Wednesday someone used it to comfort me after a painful experience. And then Thursday…! Thursday it was spoken at least three times in my morning Diocesan Finance Committee meeting, then I was at a gathering of priests in parish ministry, where it was an ongoing theme. One of my colleagues, who is also a physician, was telling us about a series of classes she is teaching to medical students, in which she can be both doctor and priest. They talked about the “heavy” stuff a medical provider encounters in their patients—depression, terminal illness, death and dying, grief—as well as the ways in which our healthcare reimbursement process—which is what we are really talking about when we speak of “Obamacare” or “Trumpcare” or any kind of health care legislation—affects the care they are able to provide.
One of the students said to her, “I’m afraid I’ll lose my empathy.”
I finally said, “OKAY! Fine! I get it!” and wrote EMPATHY in huge letters on the back of the handout. Empathy would the topic for my sermon this week, whether I liked it or not.
What is empathy? How is it different from sympathy?
Sympathy is feeling sorry for someone, from a detached position, similar to pity. That moment when you say, “Oh, isn’t that too bad that happened to her…” and in your mind you finish the sentence with “thank God it didn’t happen to me!” Sympathy is a good start, but it leaves you open to begin to feel superior to the other person. It can even lead you down the wrong road, looking for places to lay the blame. “Well of course this has happened to her, because she…” Sympathy allows us to remain detached, unchanged. It might be a good first step, but if we are going to follow Christ, we have to go deeper.
Psychology Today defines empathy this way: “Empathy is the experience of understanding another person’s condition from their perspective. You place yourself in their shoes and feel what they are feeling.” Empathy is at the heart of what we call the Golden Rule—the idea that we should treat others the way we would want them to treat us—but I think it goes even further than that. The Golden Rule allows you to remain centered in yourself, act in your own best interests. Empathy asks us to step out of ourselves and imagine what it’s like to be in the other person’s position. It means to “feel in”—to allow yourself to experience whatever it is they are feeling.
In today’s Gospel reading, Jesus promises that there will be “another Advocate” to come to the disciples once he is gone. The word Jesus uses, in Greek, is parakletos, one who stands alongside. Ostensibly with the purpose of defending or supporting. The Paraclete, the advocate, is the Holy Spirit. Jesus speaks about the Spirit abiding with us and being “in” us. The Spirit is the way God ‘feels in’ to humanity.
There is a growing interest in something called “mirror neurons” in humans and their role in empathy. I don’t know a lot about them, so I hesitate to dive in too deeply, but the basic idea, as I understand it, is that they fire when one person sees their own behavior in another person. (I have heard about it most in the development of children, that sort of game we play with babies, mirroring their expression and getting them to mirror ours.) The idea that we are perhaps neurologically wired to “feel in” to another person’s experience. That part of being human is being empathetic.
But it goes beyond simply “feeling in.” The next step in this spiritual development is compassion, which literally means “to suffer with” and is empathy in action. It’s not just feeling what the other person is feeling, but acting on behalf of another to try to make a difference. As Christians, we are called to be compassionate, in the same way Christ is compassionate. Suffering with others—and at the same time acting to make a difference.
A few years back, as we heard almost daily about natural disasters and mass shootings, the term “compassion fatigue” began to float around. The idea that we reach a point where we just can’t take anymore; we shut ourselves down. We “feel out” to try to protect ourselves, to allow our hearts to heal a little before the next new heartbreak.
Those are the moments when we most need the Paraclete, the Holy Spirit, to not just stand beside us but be in us, re-activating our spiritual “mirror neurons” so that we begin to treat one another more and more like the One “in whom we live and move and have our being.” So that we don’t lose our empathy. So that we don’t give in to compassion fatigue.
This is how we love Jesus; this is how we keep his commandments.
Following Jesus into a life of compassion is not always easy. It means opening ourselves up to suffering and sorrow. Not just the pain caused when we are rejected or treated badly, but when, through empathy, we begin to feel the suffering of another, and choose not to shut ourselves off from it. Just as Jesus did not shut himself off from it, even though it took him to the cross.
Following Jesus’ model of empathy and compassion involves an awful lot of forgiveness—both in terms of receiving and giving. It means getting out of the safe places and heading out into the community. Looking for the altars to “an unknown god” and, filled with the empathy of God, offering to introduce the people gathered there to the God you know—the God who stands beside and dwells within you—hoping that the other person’s ‘spiritual mirror neurons’ will fire and they will begin to experience the Holy One who creates, redeems and sanctifies us.