By Pastor Paula Burchill
The moms’ group I lead has been taking a course with Brene Brown called The Gifts of Imperfect Parenting. One of the things Dr. Brown most encourages parents to teach their children is empathy. Empathy, she says, “is not I feel sorry for you. Empathy is I feel with you.” She says the best way to teach children to be resilient is to teach them empathy.
One of the things empathy does is it encourages us to take the perspective of another person, and Dr. Brown says it has to be modeled, because empathy is the only antidote to shame.
Brene Brown says, “I define shame as the intensely painful feeling or experience of believing that we are flawed and therefore unworthy of love and belonging – something we’ve experienced, done, or failed to do makes us unworthy of connection.”
As we head into our last week before the election and as we face the aftermath of yet another shooting, I am longing for empathy in the world. And I’m also longing for connection. Dr. Brown says we need to create faith communities that are so full of empathy that shame can’t hold on. This is the way for us to be truly connected.
I was thinking of the story of the woman who was caught in adultery, remember her? She was being faced by her accusers, and they had rocks in their hands, ready to stone her—which was the legal punishment for adultery. But as she stood there, Jesus stepped in and told her accusers, are any of you without sin? Because you need to take that log out of your own eye before you point out the speck in someone else’s eye. So, how about whoever of you is without sin, go ahead and throw your rock. The accusers? They dropped their rocks, and walked away. And Jesus looked at the woman and told her to go away and sin no more.
I hadn’t thought of this as an empathy story before, but it really hits me that way. We ALL can be so quick to cast judgment, so quick to point out another’s failings. I really don’t think there is one of us who does not struggle with this. But Jesus forces the accusers to take the woman’s perspective. Do you know what happened? All you have is the man’s word. Are you sure? Have you ever been wrongly accused? Imagine the woman’s shame.
But Jesus encouraged the people to take the first step of empathy—to take another’s perspective and then to stay out of judgment. The crowd is told not to judge. And then Jesus recognizes her emotion—the next step of empathy. He sees how scared she is and he speaks to her. No one else was doing that. No one else saw her. Empathy forces us to really look at others. To try and name what they might be feeling. Even if it is totally different from what we would feel.
I’m feeling challenged as a church. I want us to look for every opportunity we can find to express empathy. Our children have to learn it from us and we have to learn it from one another.
When I was younger, for some reason I vividly remember being at a store with my parents and a kid was throwing a horrible fit. I remember my mom looking at me and saying, “Oh, that poor kid must be so tired.” And she looked at the kid’s mom with a knowing look that said, “I have been there, sister!”
That has always stuck with me. And it is a perfect empathy story. My mom may very well have been judging the mom and her bratty kid, but I never heard it. She was teaching me to look with empathy first.
Where can you express empathy this week? When you see a political candidate you don’t agree with, can you stop and think about their perspective with empathy? When you turn on the news can you look at those you see with empathy first? Can you take the log out of your own eye?
It is hard! But so vital. Because if we don’t receive empathy we continue in shame. And people who are ashamed don’t know that they are God’s beloved children. Shame is different from guilt. We confess our guilt regularly. But when someone is shamed, they are shamed for who they ARE, not for what they have done. We are called to hate the sin, not the sinner. And people living in shame are very disconnected.
Will you join me in looking for ways to express empathy? The church has a unique opportunity to be a place that teaches and models the first look we give our neighbor to be a look of empathy, so that we can connect and be the community Jesus wants us to be. Let it be so!