Lenten Empathy

“Bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ” — Galatians 6:2

“If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you?” — Luke 6:32

Yesterday I was blessed to hear a presentation by a mental health care professional who spoke about the role of empathy and compassion in the health care industry. It was exceptional. Among the many insights she shared, I was struck by the way she described empathic listening as the capacity to enter another’s world of suffering without being “taken down” by it; but to translate the energy of empathy into compassionate action that helps — in ways great or small — bring the sufferer hope and relief. Something like that.

It set me thinking about the importance of recognizing that every person has a story they carry with them, and simply being aware that there is a story can go a long way toward tempering our judgments and responses to others’ words and actions.

It also made me think back on the Lent of 1992 when my spiritual director gave me this stunning Lenten penance:

Every day this Lent, if at all possible, I want you to go out of your way to connect with someone you find difficult, irritating, tedious or unappealing. Have lunch with them, stop them in the hall and ask them how they are doing, call them up just to chat, inquire into their interests and be interested, let them talk and you listen.

40 days. It was a hard Lent! For Holy Week, he asked me to write up the insights and benefits I sensed that I had gained. Here’s part of what I wrote (which I have used in talks I’ve given during Lent):

#1: Self knowledge! I discovered, first of all, how much I naturally gravitate toward people I find appealing and avoid those I don’t, and that it takes an act of the will to overcome this force of gravitation. Sounds obvious, but until I put myself in a position like this I simply did not know how true it really was for me. I also saw, in that way, just how selfish, quick to judge and good at reducing others to a caricature I am. But even more, I thought to myself again and again throughout Lent: My God, who would have me on their list if they had this penance?!

These days exposed my lack of virtues, my weaknesses and pettiness. That was yucky to see. But your request also grew some things in me I would never have seen the need for had I not been forced into this penance. Especially I learned the need to give people a hearing in order to “get” them. And nine times out of ten I came to see that their story, when they shared it, had some tough stuff in it. A few times I said to myself: “So that’s why they’re so difficult to deal with!” But more it was self-recognition, seeing my own blocks and issues that made me avoid them.  The more I came to know them, generally the less aversion I experienced toward them. Not in all cases, but in most.

One guy in particular I found out, from our several lunches together that took us deeper than I had anticipated, he had a rough home life growing up. His dad was hard and demanding and his mom was cold and distant. The deck was stacked against him from the start, and I appreciated how remarkably he had come out of that, all things considered, and tried to move beyond a bad beginning.

One woman who told me why I irritated her, but how she appreciated me more now that she and I had talked. I did not have the same courage to tell her the feeling was mutual. I was deeply humbled, somewhat humiliated, and totally amazed at her honesty!

It made my evening examination of conscience much more vivid! And made me cling more to prayer as I saw my shadows and others’ crosses. My Lenten anthem was Lord, have mercy with gusto!

I really can understand so much better now what you [my director] told me when we first started working together: if I want to be a saint, I have to will it. Not just want it, but will it. Choose it again and again. It’s not enough just to feel passionate or idealistic about holiness. If I want to learn to love these people better than I do, I have to overcome my natural dis-inclinations by choosing to come out of myself and focus on them. Look at them eye to eye, face to face. While there’s no magic happy ending to this, with me now being some kind of Mother Teresa, I have changed and did grow. And that’s gold.

All of these insights I had as she spoke exploded when she showed us a really neat video that drew from me tears and various memories. I’d never seen it before, but she said it’s very popular in the health care training world. It has given me a fresh way of looking at people around me. Such beauty.

Watch if you can, it’s about 4 minutes long:

5 comments on “Lenten Empathy

  1. Very thoughtful message Tom, thank you. The video you shared was also used in a training program for hospital chaplains I participated in earlier this year. Touching and well done, I’m glad I had the chance to see it again.

  2. Tara Rodden Robinson says:

    Hi Tom,

    During morning prayer, I asked for the grace to be relieved of my hardness of heart toward someone. Then I read your post and watched the video. Thanks for being part of answered prayer for me!

    Your sister in Christ,

  3. John Koehler says:

    Dr. Tom, I read this today and had a flashback to a month ago. Teaching a class and one student just could not get it. Super nice person but nearly written off by the instructors (including me). Over lunch one of his co-workers mentioned a work related accident about our student and how it had affected him as he was no longer the sharp reason he was. I immediately felt shame and embarrassment for my judgement. I talked to him later and he mentioned his accident. I took the extra time to work with him and I can’t describe the reward I felt on the plane home. Just another reminder from your post and why I pray each day for God to soften my heart to others.

    Thanks for the reminder and inspiration to continue my prayer. (Great video!)

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