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Story of Empathy
I took and reworked this story of empathy from a conversation between Annie F Downs, Dave Clayton, and Kevin Queen.
Imagine you are playing in a river. The game is to cross the river on top of some stepping stones. Your legs are enough to reach each stone with ease, and it’s a blast to look at the river as the fish swim underneath you. Your younger sister’s legs can reach each stone with a jump. She giggles each time she lands successfully, pleased at keeping up with you. Your even younger brother leaps… can’t make it and falls in.
What do you do?
When we think of grace as beginning and ending with forgiveness, you carry brother across the river. That ruins the fun though.
Real grace builds empathy and dignifies a person. Instead of carrying your brother you and your sister place intermediate stones giving him the dignity (and fun) of accomplishing the same task according to his level.
You have to empathize with your younger brother’s size. You have to ask yourself, “what does he need to accomplish this task?” You have to share his feelings. He wants to jump across the river just like you. He wants to be able to do it all by himself. Yeah it might be easier to just carry him across, but that’s not the game. The game is hopping across stones. You have make it so he can join in the game. Putting stones in the river, so he can play too.
So how do we get there? How do we get to that level of empathy? First, empathy is about understanding and sharing the feelings of another. So can you understand and share the feelings of another if you don’t first understand and share your own feelings? Short answer, no.
The second thing you need is humility. You have to be willing to give up your world view and step into someone else’s pain and joy.
Sharing my journey
My parents always told me that I have an uncommon compassion for people. This gift has given me a strong ability for empathy. I intuitively know and understand how people are feeling. I have rarely been wrong about how someone feels. It is something I have always relied on and used to my advantage in communication frequently. However, just because I knew about the feelings didn’t make me empathetic. Many times I could care less about how you are feeling. The common refrain in my mind was “to suck it up.” Why would someone with a gift of compassion tell people to suck it up?
You know what I am terrible at. Sharing the feelings of others. The reason is manifold, but I can tell you that I squashed, covered, and attempted to obliterate my own feelings for a decade from about age 10 – 20. My wife could tell you how emotionally unintelligent I was when we got married. Many tears were shed by her (because I don’t even think I know how to cry, still). Why would I lock away my feelings? Well, the way I grew up (not casting blame – this was my fault) I thought I shouldn’t have feelings. Real men don’t cry, right?
But when I now reflect on the lack of crying, I see the lack of laughter too. I see the lack of joy that accompanies a lack of pain. I see confusion when grief strikes. I see dead men where they should be alive rejoicing or devastated with loss. The point is that you have to know and use and experience your own emotions before you can share the feelings of another. Until you start sharing the feelings of others, you aren’t empathizing with them. You’re being selfish with the feelings of others and missing connection with them. I know I was missing connection. I don’t want you to make the same mistakes as me.The point is that you have to know and use and experience your own emotions before you can share the feelings of another. #Gracer Click To Tweet
Humility of Jesus
Once you are aware of your own feelings, then you have to give them up. You push them aside and you feel what others feel. The situation is not about you, a humble position to take.
Sometimes I think of why God came down to earth in the form of Jesus. The scriptures tell us that He humbled himself. If Jesus is the ultimate bringer of grace, then His view of empathy is linked to grace. By humbling Himself, Jesus pushed aside His own feelings and had compassion on us. He felt what we felt. Jesus is able to bring us grace because he felt our feelings.
I think it is the same with us. We aren’t giving grace if we don’t practice empathy. We are simply practicing forgiveness. Jesus did forgive us our sins, but He brought something much more intimate and far better. He brought a path to God.
Think about it this way. What stepping stone do we need to get to God? Forgiveness was something conferred through temple sacrifice. It didn’t bring us any closer to Him. He just carried us across the river missing the entire relationship building experience. Grace built through the empathy of Jesus dealt with us differently. Jesus’s grace dignified us and put the stones of forgiveness and then added in the stones of the Holy Spirit. Those were the difference makers. We need the forgiveness to get us off the riverbank and then we need the Holy Spirit right in the middle when we just couldn’t quite can’t make it across the river. The Holy Spirit is that extra stone to land on.What stepping stone do we need to get to God? The Holy Spirit is that extra stone to land on and reach God on the other side of the river. #Gracer Click To Tweet
Be a Gracer
Grace was built from the empathy of Jesus Christ who had to humble Himself from His own feelings. To give others grace we have to do the same humbling so that we can empathize with them. I would love to be in a community of grace with you. I love getting feedback even the negative stuff. Enneagram 5 – I don’t mind sifting through negative feelings to find good nuggets of truth and improvement. Sign up to join the email community below or feel free to comment or share this article.