By Jolene Underwood, Crosswalk.com
Division seems to be the norm these days. It's not new, but it's still frustrating and tiring. If there's a place to state an opinion, absent personal responsibility, and relational connection, it's available to us.
Opinions often come from the position of rightness, not an invitation to connect in relationship. Tensions are high, and it seems the world lives more polarized all the time.
Also, our world is experiencing a coronavirus pandemic we've never experienced in our lifetime. The result of all our fear, concern, anger, and confusion is a crisis that is foundational to a collective experience of trauma. We're challenged to find our way through these unchartered days, and our nervous systems are taxed.
For the sake of our bodies, minds, and souls, we need connection. And healing connection cannot happen without empathy.
Empathy is the ability to see and engage with another person's experience. When we are empathic, we relate to others’ needs without expecting them to match ours. We meet them where they are.
Empathic engagement requires awareness, attention, positive intentions, and compassionate action.
Here are five reasons we need empathy now more than ever:
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1. We’re All Impacted Differently
In the early days of the pandemic, some said we’re all in the same boat. Not really. Even though we are all affected by this coronavirus crisis in some way, the way it impacts our lives varies tremendously. It's important to keep this in mind to make way for empathy, to see from another person's perspective.
Because someone else’s boat may have capsized.
I have friends who have worked harder and spent more hours outside the home than before, others have worked solely from home for the first time, and yet others no longer have a job at all.
Some have lost loved ones. People in destructive relationships with someone they live with are at greater risk of mental, emotional, and even physical harm. Though some individuals have enjoyed reflective time and an increase of quiet in their lives, others have been devastated.
Even people who have similar circumstances have different ways of filtering their experiences and processing their feelings related to it. We can’t assume another person's experience is like ours.
Instead, we need to get curious and seek to understand others in a way that helps them feel understood. Engaging in empathy connects us to another person and helps us widen our vision.
Our enemy would love to keep us focused on ourselves and the way we see things. God wants to help us see more of what He would have us see. Empathy occurs when we see beyond our own thoughts and feelings to what another person experiences.
For now we see only a reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known. –1 Corinthians 13:12
In this world, we will never have eyes to see all there is to see. We see and know God in part. Empathy helps us see God and the world around us through the eyes of another person, and through this, we get to experience more of God.
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2. We Need Relationship, Not Rightness
In the Garden of Eden, Adam and Eve had the Tree of Life and the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil (Genesis 2:9). They were connected to the source of life and chose to eat from the tree that led to death (Genesis 3:3).
Choosing to decide good and evil for themselves meant choosing their version of rightness and separation from God. Today, we still experience this inclination to be right, and the relational break that results.
God designed us for relationships. When He made Adam, he chose to make Eve to partner in life with Him. He declared that all of creation was good (Genesis 1:4,10,12, 21, 25, 31), then declared Adam's aloneness not good (Genesis 2:18).
Scripture gives us nearly 60 verses on how to be with "one another." To love one another, forgive one another, accept one another, carry each other's burdens, and so on. It is clear throughout the Bible that God's plan is to have us grow in community with one another.
Our personal stances where we claim to be right because we are sure we know the answers, negate opportunities to understand, love, accept, and engage with one another. What if they see something we don't see? What if their way of seeing the world could help us see and know more of God?
When we stand on personal rightness, we miss God's unifying righteousness.
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3. We Are Called to Unity for the Benefit of the Body
Numerous scripture references talk about unity. Unity in Christ is not about wanting all the same things, or living the same way, but about alignment with the will, character, and design of One God.
We find our commonality with Him through suffering and healing and our great need.
We might expect unity to occur when someone thinks and acts like we do. Instead of engaging with people directly, we spar online or choose to disregard people when they believe differently. We look for relief from division, by aligning with people who agree with us, rather than doing the hard work that leads to emotional connection.
Unity in the body cannot happen if we are not empathic. God knew how different we would be when He created each of us after Him image, but none of us with the same combination of traits or design to reflect Him. We reveal Him in part to the world around us. And we to see His reflection in others, even when they do not agree with us.
We are called to unity in Christ, because of Christ, and for the sake of Christ. When we allow ourselves to be who we are uniquely designed to be, and let God define who that is, we are better equipped to let others be who they are. Empathy thrives in this place.
When the body of believers values one another well and seeks to find unity in Christ, it makes a difference in our workplaces, our relationships, our communities, and our lives. Unity is not about an absence of differences but coming together in our differences, so we experience more of God and who He designed us to be.
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4. Empathy Activates Our Connectivity Neurons
When we engage empathically with others, we engage what are called mirror neurons. These mirror neurons fire when we see someone cry and our face responds with compassionate expressions. When we see someone get hurt physically, we flinch. That is an automatic empathic response from mirror neurons.
This neurological response helps the distressed person's amplified state experience calm. As the person with heightened emotions engages with a person whose presence tracks with them and validates their experiences, coregulation occurs.
Fear, anger, and anxiety settle down when another person sees them, engages with them where they are at, without expecting them to be somewhere else mentally, emotionally, or behaviorally.
Without empathy, we ignore the emotions of others. Our facial cues don't respond to those of another person's, and it impacts their ability to feel seen, known, and loved.
The heightened levels of fight, flight, or freeze responses we experience as part of today's world get stuck in chronic destructive states without healthy, relational connection. Though many are unable to experience in-person interactions the way we used to, our need for emotional connection has not lessened. Rather, this need is heightened.
Empathy fosters connection with others, and we can engage in it via our interactions and communications with another person, even when we are not in the same room. One way is to simply restate what another person expresses, or state the feeling they experience, with the motivation of compassionate care.
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5. We Are Designed to Need God and Others
When it's challenging to connect to others or hurt reigns because relationships have been painful, it’s common for believers to tune out their emotional and relational needs by claiming God is all they need.
This pattern plays out over and over. Someone shares vulnerably about a struggle they have and the thoughts or feelings around that struggle. A hearer (or social media reader) responds with positive words and the message, "God is all you need!"
Or, the hurting individual has denied that they have needs or is afraid to ask for their needs to be met. Instead of connecting to the truth of what's happening within them, they proclaim, "God is all I need!"
God is the source of everything we need. Also, He provides much of what we need through other people. We are designed to need various things that can only come through people, which is part of God's design.
We need God, and we need how God provides through others. One of these needs is empathy.
Empathy Helps As We Struggle with More Than a Pandemic
Divisiveness runs rampant, and empathy is squashed. We need to engage in empathy for ourselves, for loved ones, and even for those we disagree with.
Consider finding a group to connect with, or a friend to reach out to. Ask them how they're doing, and just listen.
For those times when you need to experience the kind of care available directly through our relationship with Him, consider using a tool I created (Unleash: Heart & Soul Care Sheets) that helps people process life's challenges with God and practice hearing from Him. Also, I have a free resource for you that can help you connect to God through His word in just a few minutes a day.
If you're struggling today, because you lack empathy from others, or because you struggle to see others where they are and engage empathically with them, I'd love to pray for you:
Father, the world needs you and the way you work through your people. Help us see what we can't see so we can engage with others in the healing way you have designed—through empathy. Amen.
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