How to climb into someone’s skin-a lesson on empathy

I sat in a chair like everyone else in the circle, but was different than everyone else.  They shared their stories and I listened because there was nothing for me to say.  They all connected.  I was the outcast.

It was about 8 years ago, and a friend had invited me to sit in on a LGBT support meeting.  Each person told stories of how their sexual identity intersected with their faith and each had deep hurt attached to their story.  Feeling like a representative of the enemy,  I sat quietly and took it all in.  This was the start of empathy; when I realized I had nothing to say, and so began to listen.  Their words penetrated deeply.

“One reason we can hardly bear to remain silent is that it makes us feel so helpless.  We are so accustomed to relying upon words to manage and control others.  If we are silent, who will take control?  God will take control, but we will never let him take control until we trust him.  Silence is intimately related to trust.”

(Richard Foster, Celebration of Discipline)

Over the years, I have attended more meetings and individuals have agreed to meet with me to share their stories one-on-one and to field my never-ending questions.  I began learning how to climb into someone else’s skin.

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There is a growing trend toward trying to teach empathy in our classrooms.  A noble idea, but like so many other topics that we try to tackle in a sterile classroom setting, it’s far removed from the authentic experiences of real life.

Thankfully, we as parents are our children’s primary educators.  Who better to teach them about empathy than us?

A couple weeks ago when dropping my daughters at their African dance class, my husband ran into a friend whom he taught with years ago.  Before he met him, K had been in a car accident, was paralyzed, and has been bound to a wheelchair ever since.  That morning, he happened to be practicing with his wheelchair basketball team.  They caught up a bit and K confessed that he was struggling.  Not just from the daily annoyances and difficulties of doing life, but he also experiences never-ceasing nausea and feels like his faith is diminishing.  He has no one walking with him.  Greg was able to speak works of encouragement and pray with his hurting friend.  And my son Bryce was right beside him.

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“You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view….Until you climb into his skin (or wheelchair) and walk around in it.”

-Atticus Finch, To Kill a Mockingbird (italics mine, of course)

There are few things more uncomfortable for me than to sit with a person who is hurting.  I am learning how to cry with them, how to put my arm around them, how to ask hard, sensitive questions, and how to help fight for their joy.   None of it comes naturally for me.

“For our souls’ sake, we need times when we go among Christ’s favorites-the broken, the bruised, the dispossessed- not to preach to them but to learn from them.  For the sake of our balance, for the sake of our sanity, we need times when we are among those who, in the words of Mahatma Gandi, live an ‘eternal compulsory fast.’ p. 75, Celebration of Discipline.  

I’m not so naive to think that I am immune to such things, and when it is my time to suffer or grieve, I sure hope that someone will be willing to make themselves a bit uncomfortable for the sake of my comfort.

So where do we start?  How can we begin to feel what other people feel?

Here’s a list of people to meet with over the coming months and years to develop empathy:

  1. Someone of a different race
  2. Someone of a different nationality
  3. Someone of a different sexual identity
  4. Someone of a different political party
  5. Someone in a different age bracket
  6. Someone in a different socio-economic bracket
  7. Someone who is disabled
  8. Someone who is grieving
  9. Someone who is suffering physically or whose husband or child is suffering

Meet with them, pay for their lunch or coffee and listen to their stories.  As Brené Brown says in Braving the Wilderness, “It’s hard to hate someone up close.”  You will be changed. 

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