Empathy in relationship building is a necessary, but missing component in some of our interactions. There was a time we were more considerate of those around us. It wasn’t just about “Me, my or mine.” There was a time when speaking was necessary and not optional. You acknowledged those around you before going about your daily tasks. There was a time where we maintained the foundation of loving our neighbor as ourselves and that we didn’t see one another as competition. We had a better sense of community. We have typified this as the “good old days.” However empathy shouldn’t be a concept we look at with nostalgia, but it should be at the core of how we do life with one another.
What is empathy? I like to define it as the ability to see someone else and what is going on in their world and to acknowledge that they are recognized and understood. Empathy, as I have been taught, is much more different than sympathy, which we tend to offer more easily. Sympathy is I feel sad or sorry for what you are going through. We offer “thoughts and prayers” as a way to meet our obligation to engage with one another because we don’t know what we should be saying. At times sympathy is used as a tool to distance ourselves from experiences we are unfamiliar with and don’t want to engage with because it will affect us more deeply than we want.
Empathy in relationships causes us to unmask from an image we have embraced as true. It challenges us to remove our masks to hold authentic space with other people. Can you imagine that! Engaging with other people beyond the ways we are more comfortable with, such as Facebook Messenger, text messaging, or e-mails. How can we grow to build more genuine relationships? One of my scriptural examples is Hebrews 4:15, which reminds us “For we do not have a high priest who is unable to empathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are—yet he did not sin”(NIV). This scripture reminds me that Jesus understands every human interaction, even though He never sinned. If He is empathetic then do I really get to avoid it? I can try, but it won’t work for long.
When I feel that I don’t have another empathetic bone in my body or the weight of life that I witness causes me to want to recluse and focus on my problems, I begin to think about the example Jesus gives. Even while on the cross, positioned between two thieves, he acknowledged the thief who wanted to be remembered. Jesus didn’t say, “Dude, do you see me hanging up here too! I don’t have time to acknowledge your suffering because I’m dealing with my burdens.” He was empathetic, acknowledged this man’s request, and demonstrated love. If you are anything like me when someone asks me to look at Jesus, I sometimes say “I’m far from perfect! That’s a tall order to follow.” It is, but it is an excellent order to follow. Being empathetic can save someone’s life and change their outlook on life too!
Let’s dig a little deeper. Which relationships are the most meaningful in your life? Are they the relationships where a person interacts only when it is convenient? Or are they relationships where people engage with you because they are genuinely concerned for you and your well-being.” Engaging on this level can be scary, I admit it. It challenges us to be genuine and available, and this is exactly what is needed.
I am challenging myself and also challenge you to dig deeper than a surface acknowledgment to reach out and see how those around you are doing. Your words or availability could be what someone else needs this week. Embracing empathy helps us to remember that the world is made of other people and each person has value to God. We will be able to look at one another from the perspective of love and value. We won’t float through life limited by our desire to accumulate more things. We will find the real treasure of community and the blessings that can happen when we extend our hand and our hearts towards the well-being of others.
Question of the Week:
How can you connect with someone else this week?