|Learn to live in the shadow of the questions.|
If we decide to drop our constant efforts at reinforcing our antipathy toward “them,” we cannot help but feel sympathy, feeling for others, even when our identification with their experience is limited, and expressed only briefly before returning to our own personal concerns. Our avoidance of sympathy, though, is understandable, given the tendency to reach beyond verbal expressions that acknowledge that another has feeling. In most cases, any sympathy for anyone whose need we may be capable of meeting (even in the most miniscule segment) will lead us to feel toward them, engaging—even if still in a brief and limited manner—with tangible action toward their needs. But the decision to engage more fully, to feel with others as persons who experience circumstances similar to our own, leads us further into providing practical assistance that has proven helpful to us in our prior circumstances. But this empathy requires some caution, a great deal of trust, and a willingness to listen carefully to others. Perhaps it is only an “impossible necessity.” But it will, at times, seems like it requires a major miracle to be implemented effectively.
|Keep going until you find the question.|
When faced with the pain of the bereaved, for example, those seeking to be helpful are often tempted to say, “I know how you feel.” Sadly, they continue on to recount their own experiences that are, often, entirely unrelated to the current circumstances of the person they presumably are seeking to help—the person having experienced a significant loss. As much as we are tempted to express our sense of empathy, don’t. The uniqueness of each individual, the circumstances of a particular loss, the element of grief currently being experienced, and thousands of other factors make each moment in each of our lives absolutely unique.
Still, my purpose in writing this is to encourage you to embrace and express empathy for your family, friends, neighbors, strangers, and anyone else you may find who is experiencing any kind of affliction. But the means by which you can effectively engage another empathetically has nothing to do with sharing your own experiences, and not even the life lessons, coping skills, or self-medicating palliation you’ve found helpful. (There’s one of those vocabulary words again: “Palliate.” As a reminder, the other two are “Ameliorate” and “Mitigate.”)
|If you wait patiently, a question will come along.|
What I would encourage you to share, however, is what the Apostle Paul addresses in II Corinthians 1:3-5. “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our affliction so that we will be able to comfort those who are in any affliction with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God. For just as the sufferings of Christ are ours in abundance, so also our comfort is abundant through Christ.”
In order to effectively share with others in affliction the comfort we have received from God, two things must be true. First, we must recognize that while each of our experiences are unique, there is a commonality of affliction among all human beings. We live in the midst of a world that has been deviated from its original course, damaged by our mismanagement, and therefore dysfunctional in such a variety of ways as to make it seem entirely devoid of reference to the perfection and holiness of its Creator.
|Feel free to add a question mark to another's statement,|
Second, though, we must also recognize the comfort we have received from God in the midst of our own affliction. If we are not confident of the comfort we have received, we face temptation to share commiseration, instead of comfort. Even when we realize how unhelpful such pessimism can be, we will seek to provide something else to those in need of comfort. (See above regarding the life lessons, coping skills, and self-medication too often prescribed with little regard for the unique circumstances and personalities of those we seek to help.
How, then, do we “comfort those who are in any affliction?” Not by passing along what God has done for us, but by connecting those in need with the “God of all comfort.” Effective comfort is not second-hand. It must be received from the primary source. Therefore, our efforts are not based in sharing with others what we ourselves possess. And yet offering prescriptively what we presume God should do for the other in need will usually result in something other than empathy, too.
So, what can we say? There is no safe answer. And that’s why I recommend questions instead.
As a chaplain/counselor in professional situations, there is an expectation that I am there for a reason. Therefore, I am able to ask a more direct question like “What should I know about your circumstances in order to be of best help to you?” Others, though, do better in asking the bereaved, especially, “What do you find yourself thinking about most?” For those facing other needs, “If you could change one thing right now, what would it be?” And simplest of all, “How can I help?”
|Any question gets inside the bubble.|
Understand, though, that the purpose of these questions is not to explain to others what basis there is for empathy in your life. Instead, my hope is that others will recognize the willingness to share in their circumstances, emotions, thought-processes, and resources (personal, familial, community, or other) toward (here they come again) ameliorating, mitigating, and/or palliating their circumstances.
My hope for you is that you will recognize the empathy that already exists in the lives of those you are called to serve, rather than trying to establish some point of connection in your own life with those in need. “I know how you feel” is never true. “I know that you feel” is, hopefully, the result God can build into your life when you carefully listen to the answers those in need already have. That is where empathy is possible, in engaging others at the point of their own need, and recognizing that we, together, have need of a source of comfort, peace, sustenance, security, and life itself from somewhere beyond our own energies and talents.
And yet, there is still one level deeper I would ask you to go. We’ll discuss that shortly. And, as before, that post’s title will begin with “Unity in and among Diversity.” I hope you’ll join me there as well.