It’s a helpless feeling. Feeling like there’s nothing you can do. Maybe that’s why we spend so much time online, looking at the intangible because we have nothing tangible to put our hands on. Maybe that’s why we get so passionate and even virulent in our comments in the virtual world, because we feel so helpless in the real world. We have a strong emotional response, but we have no where to expend that energy…so we turn to the internet, and in doing so, fuel fires that burn out of control.
Maybe we need to turn the internet off. Turn to your partner, your spouse, your parent, your child, your friend, your soul…and consider these questions:
Am I sympathetic?
Am I empathetic?
Am I showing compassion?
I think it was in a Max Lucado Bible study that I read the best definition of these three words, words that are often confused. He defines the words in terms of a conversation with a hungry, homeless person.
Sympathy says, “I’m so sorry you’re hungry.”
Empathy says, “I’m so sorry you’re hungry, I’ve been hungry like this before.”
Compassion says, “Friend, let’s go get a sandwich together.”
At first glance, it seems that the first two responses are empty statements, even condescending. And perhaps in some situations, they are. But let’s consider that each statement is valuable. Valuable when we consider the Other. Who is the Other, the person or people that you would not naturally gravitate to? Who are the ones that you feel uncomfortable around? Who is it that you avoid? Who is it that you are suspicious of? Who is it that you secretly (or outwardly) blame?
We are at a turning point in this nation. Yes–the leaders and government can and should act in regards to bias training, gun laws, mental health support, and much more. But the President (or my Senator or Representative) is not responsible for what I teach my child, or the conversations my husband and I have, or the conversations I have with teens at church. I am. I am responsible for what’s in my heart and what I teach those around me. And because I am responsible, that means I need to make sure my heart is right.
So I ask myself, “Who is the Other?”
Who is your Other? A young black man? The police? Gay people? Muslims? Conservative fundamentalist Christians? Republicans? Democrats? White people? The woman at the grocery store using government assistance? Physically handicapped? Mentally ill? Protestors? Those who sit on the sidelines? Who is your Other?
Our emotions, actions, and relationships with the Other can change only when we decide to step out of our comfort zone. So, hold my hand, and let’s take one step outside the circle. Do you hear the pain of the Other? Stand still for a moment, and just listen. Don’t interrupt or rationalize, just listen. How can you have sympathy for the Other? Let’s say it together, “I am so sorry that you have this pain.”
One of the reasons I love Jesus is that he noticed the Others. The ignored, the oppressed, the liars and cheaters–he noticed them all. And he saw their pain.
Okay, so we’ve taken one step together. It was really uncomfortable and we wanted to say something, we wanted to defend and rationalize but instead we listened quietly to their pain. Want to take the next step? Keep holding my hand, and move your other foot forward. We’re totally out of the circle now, but it’s okay. Now, consider…have you felt pain? Have you felt pain similar to what your Other is feeling? Can you take a deep breath and say, “I am so sorry that you have this pain, I’ve felt that pain before.” When you can empathize with the Other, when you can say “I’ve been there,” something incredible happens. Where you had been likely staring at your feet in trepidation, having stepped out of your comfort circle, you are looking up now. Looking into the eyes of the Other. Seeing him or her or them, maybe for the first time.
This last step may take time. I’ll wait with you until you’re ready. Let the Other’s pain wash over you. Remember your own pain. But eventually…we must move. Most people back up, step back into the circle, shake their head mournfully and say things like, “What a world.” If that’s where you are, it’s okay. I honor your willingness to step forward with me, to sympathize and empathize with the Other, the one you’d never imagine encountering. But if you’re willing…let’s take one more step. Keep looking the Other in the eye and reach out your hand. “Friend,” you hear yourself saying, “Let’s go together to make this right.”
Our world does not change through laws or hashtags. It changes when we change. It changes when we take small steps to the Other, when we begin to understand and offer compassion, because then the Other is no longer the other, he or she or they are now one of Us.