By William Dillingham
When a crisis comes our way — whether that crisis is within the family, the community or the country; whether it is financial, relational or existential — we can truly discover amazing things about ourselves, our families and our communities; thoughts that we could not have known if the crisis had not happened. Of course, I’m not saying that crises are to be sought out or caused just so that we can grow in self-awareness, but I am saying that such situations often highlight personal characteristics of our walk with God. President Jimmy Carter, in his classically folksy way, once remarked that we are, each of us, like tubes of toothpaste: We find out what’s inside when life applies a little pressure.
Sometimes, unfortunately, the things that we learn about ourselves are not things we want to know, although they can be the things that we very much need to know. One such lesson that many of us have learned is that we often don’t truly empathize with others and often fail to demonstrate love for one other.
Empathy is, in my view, the truest form of the outworking of equality. It is what allows us to become the helping hands and embracing arms of God here on earth. We are all equal — as sinning Saints — in the eyes of God, but God instructs us, in Luke, Romans and Philippians, to treat others better regardless on their actions and our biases than we may want to treat them.
I don’t think that this view on empathy is a surprise to many Friends. There are so many verses in scripture and so many queries that speak to this subject that I cannot possibly hope for originality. Consequently, I would like to broach this topic from a somewhat surprising starting point: 1 Corinthians 8. While, nominally, in this chapter Paul is talking about temple meat, he makes a very powerful statement about how we live our lives in relation to others, both directly and indirectly. in essence, he is saying that our knowledge of certain things, whether they be right or wrong, is of little value if by our actions we lead others astray. Our knowledge of right and wrong, in other words, matters not at all if our actions convey little concern for the place of others in their walk with Christ.
Paul, in still other words, is saying nothing more than the simple truth that love and love alone should guide our actions, not our knowledge of rules or facts or history.
Of course, love is not empathy, but love can serve as the basis for empathy, and empathy can be a fertile ground for love to prosper. This isn’t just clever word play; clinical research has shown that viewing the world from another’s perspective makes it impossible for us to simultaneously maintain anger, contempt or frustration towards that other person. Think about that for a moment: God created in us the psychological condition that as we empathize with another’s condition, as we earnestly and honestly strive to see the world through another’s eyes, we cannot continue to harbor ill feelings towards that person. We cannot dehumanize (to use an extreme verb) someone with whom we feel connected.
The awesomeness of how we are inextricably knitted together allows us to understand another person’s pain. Through empathy, we want to help alleviate it, overcome the cause, fix the situation and make it better not only because we feel sorry for someone in pain, but because that pain has become our pain also. Frustration with a suffering person fades into the background as we become closer to that individual and his or her condition. Our motivation is no longer to frustrate, hurt or to get even with an adversary, but, rather to lighten the burden.
One of Rufus Jones’s favorite verses was Ezekiel 1:8, and of it, he remarked, “The work of God will not be done by angels from the sky, but by men, here, with their hands.” For us, the work we must do is by showing love one to another, thereby glorifying God. Love, in this regard, is self-sacrificial love manifested in works — deeds and words — that build up another. We cannot evince that love without understanding the anger, fear and physical needs of others, particularly our adversaries, and that cannot be done other than by knowing the individual as well as we know ourselves. Without that knowledge, we are simply giving to them what we feel they need, and to the extent that we help, we do so by accident.
Consider further that feelings of frustration and anger towards others — children, co-workers, foreigners, spouses or strangers — don’t just happen, but arise from initial thoughts about them. How much better our lives would be if we trained ourselves to think of the others’ point of view, to empathize, first, and do so with an open heart? I may think to myself, “Why is so-and-so trying to give me a heart attack by being so lazy and willful?” Perhaps I should ask instead, “What pressure and distress must so-and-so be under to miss the deadline, and how have my actions contributed to her distress?” Imagine, moreover, how by simply encouraging our children to see events through the eyes of others, we could help them to avoid unnecessary anger and frustration.
As we, and through our examples, our children, begin to intentionally practice empathy, imagine how much more the kingdom of God would be increased. What can you do today to make empathy a defining characteristic of your life? In the end, and this can’t have been lost on our magnificent creator, we will be happier too.
William Dillingham is a Conservative Quaker who lives in Denver, Colorado. Being the father of two young children gives him unbounded pleasure.