Thursday, October 13, 2016

Guest Post - Practicing Empathy

One of my goals when I relaunched my blog was to also highlight the thoughts and writings of others through guest blog posts. It’s been awhile since I’ve had a guest post, so this week I asked our children's minister, Jason McManus, to share. I didn’t give him a particular topic to cover, just asked him to share what was on his heart, and he chose to address empathy, or more specifically, practicing empathy.

And that’s a great reminder, because we tend to see empathy as more of a passive thing, and not something we need to work for. Jason makes a great case for taking some deliberate, conscious, and sometimes difficult steps towards practicing empathy, even when we don’t want to. P.S., the writing is all his, but I did add in the bold for emphasis, as is my style! ;)

Practicing Empathy

A Guest Post by Jason McManus

Did you know that one of the best ways to see from someone else's perspective is by reading? That's right, one of the key ways to teach someone empathy is by giving them something to read with a viewpoint that is at least a little different from their own. I don't actually want to talk about reading though, I want to talk about perspective. What I want to share with you in this entry is what empathy looks like in a Christian's life. I also want to tell you why I think we all need to practice more of it.

The first thing we need to do is define the term. Empathy is a psychological state similar to sympathy, but instead of feeling sorry for a person, you relate to them or identify with them. The problem many of us have with empathy is that we tend to be naturally pessimistic. When we have an argument with someone, instead of assuming it was a misunderstanding we assume that particular person is rude, insensitive and probably a pathological liar. Yes, I acknowledge that sometimes people are all of those things, but a lot of times they are just doing the best they can and trying hard doesn't mean they don't make bad choices.

“In everything, therefore, treat people the same way you want them to treat you, for this is the Law and the Prophets” - Matthew 7:12

This verse is often called 'The Golden Rule' and really shows the heartbeat of what empathy truly is. Jesus was teaching that instead of using our emotions to know how to treat people, we should take the time and think about it. If we let our emotions rule us, we will act out in anger, jealousy and other passions that go away as quickly as they come and leave disaster in their path. This is not an ideal way to spend our lives.

So where does that leave us? It sounds good in theory - “empathy”, sure we'd all like to consider ourselves like that, but are we really? Often times we try so hard to mold our lives into exactly the way we want them that we forget to help others. It isn't that we don't care or that we are mean people, it is just we are too focused on ourselves. There is a big difference between being selfish and being self-centered. The selfish person sees an issue through someone else's perspective and just doesn't care. The self-centered person wants to help, they just never realize there is a need.

Isn't that where we find ourselves more often? We don't mean to be unkind, we're just too busy thinking about our lives. It's not just a simple act of 'deciding to be empathetic' that will actually change our worldview though. If it were that easy, wouldn't we all be doing it? This is one of those times where there isn't an easy answer. There is just a straight-forward and hard answer. Start practicing.

Here's some examples. Has your boss been yelling at you? Try and figure out what he thinks he is achieving by sending those insults your way. Surely, there is more to it than 'he is mean', but it is up to you to find out. Time to do your best Sherlock Holmes impression and think about things from other angles. Try and think like someone from the opposite side of the political aisle, or try and understand what someone from a different nationality or race would think about a certain issue. This doesn't mean you have to always agree with your new found perspectives, but at least you are learning to widen your viewpoint.

Now let's think about how we can use this in our faith walk.

“Let love of the brethren continue. Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by this some have entertained angels without knowing it. Remember the prisoners, as though in prison with them, and those who are ill-treated, since you yourselves also are in the body” - Hebrews 13:1-3

Do you hear the heart of the writer here? Love everyone and think about what others are going through as if you were going through it. If you truly want to live a lifestyle of service or just want to continue being a reliable friend, you ought to try and figure out where they are coming from. Make the effort to understand your friend's point of view. Living this way may be hard, but true friends are worth their weight in gold.

Another thing about friendship though, is it gets messy. It also gets scary. The scary part of empathy is that it makes us vulnerable. It makes us feel weak. Some people (myself included) will ask something like this. “What if I go out of my way to accommodate someone and they don't want anything to do with me?” On the other hand, perhaps you don't want to invest emotionally in people because you have been burned by friends before. That's life though, everybody gets burned. Pick yourself up, shake the dust off and go try again. Good friends are worth the risk and vulnerability is not weakness despite what anyone tells you. Making connections with people, serving others and putting genuine love for others into practice are some of the most productive things you can do with your time. Also, because time is such a valuable and finite resource we should learn to actually spend some of it on things that give us long term results.

Matthew 6:19-21 says it this way:

“Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy, and where thieves break in and steal. But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys, and where thieves do not break in or steal; for where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”

You can't take stuff with you, but the impact you have on other people's lives is an eternal value, a treasure that no moth can eat and no robber can steal. We have to be a community of believers that teaches and practices empathy. Looking at life only through our own glasses will severely limit our effectiveness in this world. I'm thinking and praying hard about how I can spend more of my time investing in things with heavenly value and I hope you will too.

Jason is a long-time friend and leads our children’s ministries at Christian Challenge, including overseeing Sunday School and the Kids Community experience on Wednesday nights. It was my honor to teach him in youth group and a pleasure to watch him grow up into a man a God! He is married to the lovely Marsha and they have two gorgeous children. I hope you enjoyed this article as much as I did! --Nathan

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