Don’t you wish we all had more empathy these days? This old speech from 2002 seems even more important now, since it seems the lesson is hard to learn.
People suffer. One of the places they suffer most is in the relationships they need the most. And that is why we need to learn empathy, so we can love one another in all our suffering.
John Gottman is a research psychologist who studied married couples over many years. He documented their lack of relationship-building skills. One way he measured this lack was by hooking them up to devices which measured all their vital signs while they were chatting and fighting. He discovered that those couples who had more than one “discounting” or “demeaning” action for every five validating, appreciating or approving actions created a neutral zone in their relationship which led to distancing. More often than not, people who consistently went over the 1-5 ratio ended up divorced within several years.
His research gave birth to Gottman’s law of one-to-five. You need five positive actions for every negative to keep things healthy. He called the main negative actions which led to trouble the “Four Horsemen of Marriage Apocalypse” (as in the book of Revelation where the horsemen are war, death, disease and famine). In marriage relationships (but probably all relationships) Gottman says the horsemen are criticism, contempt, stonewalling and defensiveness. Women do more criticizing, men do more stonewalling. But everyone does everything and that’s why we keep making one another suffer.
Empathy is an antidote to apocalypse
Empathy is a trait we can develop, a positive action we can practice. It is a basic building block of a good relating. It is an alternative to suffering and making someone else suffer. If we take strength from Jesus and so find the strength to follow him in humility, we can learn it.
I want to show you a short film clip from The Hurricane that demonstrates the kind of empathy we would all like to exercise. You may have seen Denzel Washington in the true story of Rubin “Hurricane” Carter. At the height of his career as a boxer, Rubin Carter was falsely accused of murder by a racist police force and ended up sentenced to life in prison.
A young boy, named Lesra, read Carter’s autobiography and ended up visiting him in prison and becoming his friend. Lesra’s adult friends became convinced that Carter was innocent and committed themselves to getting the truth known. After 20 years in jail he was granted a new trial. In this clip we are awaiting the verdict in Rubin’s prison cell, He and Lesra are sharing their thoughts….
Lesra’s great empathy busted Carter out of his true prison. It penetrated the defenses with which he had surrounded his suffering. That’s what love does. The author of love, Jesus Christ, is our strength and our guide in how to put this building block into the basis of our relationships. So let’s think about it.
Empathy is communicating accurate understanding and acceptance.
All the words in the definition above are important. We are talking about someone we love. We are talking about someone like us, who has an overturned heart, someone coming to feel like they can be understood. In that process we want to
- communicate — which means they received it, not just that we said it,
- accurate understanding — something rational, head to head, mind to mind, and
- acceptance — something emotional, heart to heart, feeling to feeling.
My loved one offers a self-revelation. I communicate I understand and accept it in love.
The dictionary often uses two words to get at the full meaning of of empathy. It says empathy is the capacity for experiencing, as one’s own, the feelings of another. This is very similar to the definition for sympathy, which is: the act or capacity for entering into or sharing the feelings or interests of another. Pathos is the Greek word for “feeling.” Em-pathos would be in-feeling. Sym-pathos would be with-feeling. Perhaps one is more heart to heart – in it with some one, and one is more mind to mind – next to it with someone. The words are different aspects of how I communicate I understand and accept what you are going through.
English translations of the Bible never use the word empathy, but the writers see it as standard operating procedure
In Ephesians 4 (one of our favorite scripture passages around here) Paul sees us as receiving a new life from Christ in which we can “Speak the truth in love.” Paraphrasing him just a bit, he says,
I insist on it in the Lord, that you must no longer live as you used to live, in the futility of your thinking. We were darkened in our understanding and separated from the life of God because of the ignorance that was in us due to the hardening of their hearts. Having lost all sensitivity, we had given ourselves over to sensuality so as to indulge in every kind of impurity, with a continual lust for more.
Instead, we are called to a new way to express our new selves in Christ. Basic to that new living in love is empathy. James says: “My dear brothers and sisters, take note of this: Everyone should be quick to listen.” (1:19) And Paul adds, “The only thing that counts is faith expressing itself through love.” (Galatians 5:6).
This listen-in-love life requires a new way of seeing. This often becomes very obvious when we get married to someone or live in community or even get close to people in the church – we see some people have no empathy. When you are talking to them it becomes clear they are mainly thinking and feeling about themselves. They not only don’t understand, they aren’t even listening. You can’t get understood even for the words you are saying, much less the feelings behind them! Many of us are darkened in our understanding and have hard hearts.
This is a main reason I am so delighted Gwen founded Circle Counseling. They don’t have nearly the capacity to help as many people as she would like (maybe one day we won’t have to refer any one to other higher-priced counselors). But for now, I am happy that people are experiencing empathy with our therapists and learning to have some through the process.
One of our friends was telling me about her step-sister who was being verbally abused by her step-father. She’d come downstairs for a drink and the unemployed step-dad would be sitting in the kitchen and say, “Get back up the stairs. I didn’t say you could come out of your room.” Later my friend found out the parents had been calling her sister retarded. The label wounded the girl so much she was shriveling up into a ball of despair and acting even more violent in school.
She had little chance to talk and be heard, too small experience of having her feelings validated. Such a person grows up with a hollow heart where feeling for others should be. They come into relationships or into the church, where people expect love, and they are like a black hole, an impossible situation, and sometimes an object of judgment. But so often they don’t even know they are doing anything wrong. No empathy seems normal to them. They don’t really know what they feel like. They need some time with the counselor and a lot of time with people who speak the truth in love and are quick to listen.
The ultimate example of empathy is Jesus. He doesn’t talk about it, because it isn’t about talking as much it is about giving and receiving.
When the writer of Hebrews describes Jesus as the High Priest who can enter the very center of the Temple where normal, unclean people can’t go, he says,
He had to be made like his brothers and sisters in every way, in order that he might become a merciful and faithful high priest in service to God, and that he might make atonement for the sins of the people. Because he himself suffered when he was tempted, he is able to help those who are being tempted.” (2:17-18)
God comes into our condition as the person of Jesus and communicates how deeply he understands our condition. This is the ultimate empathy: entering into what it feels like to be us.
The great example of Jesus entering in is when he gets baptized. People have often had a little problem with Jesus wanting to be baptized. If you don’t sin, what is the point of entering into an activity designed to express that you are repenting of sin, going down into the water to be cleansed and coming out to live a new life? In Matthew 3, where the event is recounted, even John the Baptist is having a problem, and he was a prophet.
John told people, “I baptize you with water for repentance. But after me will come one who is more powerful than I, whose sandals I am not fit to carry. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire. “ He was talking about Jesus. Then it says, “Jesus came from Galilee to the Jordan to be baptized by John. But John tried to deter him, saying, ‘I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?’”
Jesus replied, “Let it be so now; it is proper for us to do this to fulfill all righteousness.”
Jesus was identifying with the new kingdom John was prophesying about — this new right relationship with God, this fire relationship. And he was showing how people get there. God comes and involves himself with your sinful life and the presence of his love makes you a brand new person. When we have empathy, we are doing the same thing kind of loving. It is the basis for good relationships.
Some people , like even John the Baptist, just want Jesus to be all about fire, all about new and pure and good. But that is only half the scene here. The new, good stuff only gets there by love going to the dark, hardened places in us and listening, receiving all that sin, taking it on until it is all out in the open and changing. Isn’t it a wonderful thing that Jesus would become like us, even entering into our sin, then rise above it transformed and leading the way out for us. That is great love. And great empathy.
How can we do empathy? How can we learn it? Listen to God and follow the example of Jesus. You’ve got the strength if you imitate him. But let me be more specific in just one very little way.
Be quick to listen
Remember when James said that a few minutes ago? What if we want to do that? What does he mean?
- Some people think he means feeling someone’s feelings for them – even in spite of their own. (Lots of wives seem to get into this with stonewalling husbands – they have all the feelings in the marriage).
- Some people think he means listening for a couple of moments and then launching into a description of how the person can solve their problem. (Lots of husbands like to do this so they can tidy up the relationship and move on to sex).
I think empathy is a little more artful and balanced than than either of those ideas of what listening is for.
Very simple empathy, and everyone needs this, is communicating accurate understanding and acceptance. So let’s say your loved one (that means anyone) says something like this dialogue:
Seeker statement: “It really burns me up to have to pay so much in taxes.”
(Pause and consider what you would normally say)
There are three parts to an empathic reply:
Identify the thought content: paying to much tax
Identify the feelings content: frustration, anger, aggravation
Paraphrase or summarize the thoughts and feelings into a tentative reply:
“It sounds like having so much money go to taxes really aggravates you.”
Now you try with this statement: “I was shocked by his rude behavior!”
(Pause and consider what you would normally say)
- Identify thought content: rudeness, the behavior problems of humankind, this guy the way he is.
- Identify feeling content: shocked? offended? embarrassed?
- Paraphrase or summarize the thought and feeling together into a tentative statement:
Possible tentative beginnings: It sounds like…I think I hear you saying…You seem to be saying…It sounded like you were just wondering if…So is it that you’re thinking…I hope I’m following. you’re feeling…?…Am I hearing you say…?
One more, a little harder: “I can’t believe you would hurt me like this. I don’t know if I ever want to see you again.”
(Pause and consider what you would normally say)
In the middle difficult relationships, which are the cause of so much pain, but so much hope that our neediness might be met with love, it encourages me to remember Jesus knows my suffering. And like no one else can, he entered into my experience and continues to do that beyond mind to mind, and feeling to feeling. His love is Spirit to spirit, which strengthens me to love, too.
Now try to listen and respond with empathy.
As we ponder the basic building blocks of good relationships this week, let’s celebrate the hope we have in Jesus. Even if we feel extremely damaged and inadequate to love, we are loved, and Jesus understands. I hope you will listen to him communicating understanding and acceptance to you as you bravely enter into love person after person.