Empathy: May 15, 2017
I wanted to call this blog Worst Mother’s Day Ever.
It was a pretty bad day. Lost dog. Lost child. Lost sleep. Grumpy, bickering children. Overworked and overtired adults. Miscommunications. Youth Sunday.
But calling it the worst is dismissive of the incredible difficulties so many mothers face every single day—poverty, crime, homelessness, war, abuse—so I can’t comfortably indulge in the hyperbole. Likewise I cringe when people say, “I’m starving!” As if many Americans have any idea what starving feels like.
When I do try to imagine what starving feels like—or homelessness or domestic abuse or fleeing war with my children in tow—well, it makes me want to do something about it. To make it better for those people. It’s easy to get overwhelmed, but getting overwhelmed is a cop out. No one can do everything. Do something.
Identifying with people who are hurting or struggling; this is empathy. Acting on the empathy, well, I figure that’s discipleship.
What with juggling an active family, a career, and a full plate of community involvement already, the addition of Dad’s back surgery and recovery has taxed my empathetic limits. On the whole I’ve been pretty proud of myself, patting myself on the back when I can work in some self-care. I’ve stopped drinking during the week, tried to get enough sleep, ditched my own reading list in favor of Jack’s current Percy Jackson fascination.
I’ve also started a practice right before bed of reviewing the day for the good stuff that happened, for the times when I can pat myself over my heart and tell myself, “good job”. I consider what I would do again, which decisions felt good, even or especially if they were hard ones. Sometimes Jack is willing to do this, too, to focus on what went right, and I think it helps him get to sleep.
In my blog preview I told this story.
Another awkward silence in the sanctuary; then, “You can do it, buddy!” shouted a man in the audience. The pianist, playing Beethoven’s Fur Elise, took a breath and started again. It wasn’t his first or his last stop, and eventually his Suzuki-method teacher brought him the sheet music. He bravely started one more time and played through the difficult piece, reluctantly stood to receive the thunderous applause, and made his way off the stage.
Another person, I think she was the Violin teacher, stood and addressed him loudly. She said, “It’s not about making a mistake. It’s how you handle it when you do make a mistake. I think your playing was sublime.”
I hope before she went to sleep that teacher patted her heart for being brave and saying something kind in a difficult moment that most people wanted to rush. I hope the boy patted his heart for being brave in his persistence.
Coincidentally…if you believe in coincidences, which I don’t…a recent Seth Godin blogpost on empathy landed in my inbox:
Empathy is the hard part.The rest is mechanics. We're not wired to walk in someone else's shoes, it's not our first instinct. Showing up with empathy is difficult, hard to outsource and will wear you out. But it's precisely what we need from you.
Empathy is what people need from each other. The path to action is discipleship. Jesus never asked us to worship him. He asked us to follow him. To copy him in his empathetic action. To be his hands and feet and heart in this hurting world.
Two hours before the piano recital I’d worshipped with colleagues in that same sanctuary. It was a lovely service and I was struck by this part of the prayer of confession:
Forgive us, we pray. Free us for joyfully obedience.
I love that idea, but honestly, sometimes grudging obedience is the most I can muster. And if my obedience comes without muttered curses or dripping sarcasm, well, it counts for my heart-pat that night. But I’m aiming for joyful obedience because I know that it feels so much better—for everyone. I do often pray that God would soften my heart, would help me get myself out of my own way, would free me for joyful obedience.
It’s been my mantra of late, and I’ve been looking for other real-life examples.
Last Sunday I helped my friend, Karen, walk from our Sunday School class to the choir room. I enjoyed talking with her during our slow, slow progress. And I needed to retrieve my kids from their classes and get into church. Right at the tipping point from joyful to grudging, Erin came up and offered to escort her the rest of the way. She was so clearly joyful about helping. It was beautiful and I was both grateful and slightly chagrined.
Carolyn responded to the preview with this story. “Many years ago, one of my students was "strange" and withdrawn. The other children didn't know what to make of her. On a field trip, one of the most popular boys ended up sitting beside her on the bus. He looked at her, smiled really sweetly, and started a conversation with her. He used his excellent social skills to put her at ease.”
Discipleship looks like using your skills for other people’s needs, and if you can be joyful about it, then everyone is doubly blessed.
My sweet Aunt Jo told me a phrase that had struck her in a recent Bible study: everything—every thing—is for your use. God gives us every thing, and encourages us to use it and to steward it because we are just borrowing it for God’s work on earth.
I think that probably also goes for emotions and for the skills we can put to use for other people.
“Follow me” and wash the feet of the weary. “Follow me” and visit the prisoners and the homebound. “Follow me” and help the orphan and the widow. “Follow me” and befriend the undesirables. “Follow me” and tend my sheep.
When I can follow joyfully, ballyhoo.
When I make a mistake, well, I try not to focus on the mistake. Instead I wonder: how do I handle the mistake?
For example: apologize for snarkiness and reassess. Youth Sunday was actually pretty sweet.
The best part was sitting with Karen.