Our school district's recent inservice dealt with "Love and Logic," the strategy of disciplining students with dignity. Following the seminar, many of us agreed it should be a mandatory parenting class for everyone whose children are being educated in our district, but some of us admitted we need to practice it in our own homes, too. As a refreshing alternative to raising our voice or blood pressure, it stresses the power of empathizing with our students/children before administering consequences. After leaving the lecture that day, I began wondering if we all don't need a jolt of empathy training, Christians in particular. "Sounds good," you're probably saying, "but what, exactly, is empathy?"
Perhaps I should start with what it is NOT. Empathy is not sympathy. Even though both words contain the root "path," meaning "feeling," "sym" denotes "with;" with sympathy, we feel "with" others; we acknowledge their pain. Empathy, on the other hand, occurs when we feel "into" another's pain; when we empathize, we enter "into" their hurts -- not as a bystander, but as a partner.
It's the difference between handing a crying person a tissue versus crying with her. In Brazil there is a saying that if you're stuck in a hole, a sympathetic person will get into the hole with you, but the empathic person will give you a rope so you can get out of the hole. I wonder how many of us Christians have developed a little rope burn -- through words, time, attention -- by helping pull others from their holes.
Carol Kent speaks of rope-throwers who were there for her and her husband when their son was being tried for murder. After Jason was given a life-without-parole sentence, one friend sent a box containing every possible size and style of Kleenex -- for the many tears that were being shed. Following my brother's death, food and cards and visits demonstrated a tremendous outpouring of love to our family, but the tears shared with friends who came alongside me were the ropes I clung to for healing.
Jesus was the ultimate rope-thrower. He tossed one to the half-breed woman at the well in Samaria and another to the hemorrhaging woman who reached out and touched his garment. When the friends of the paralytic lowered their buddy through the thatch roof so he could meet Jesus face-to-face, the Messiah not only healed the man's body, but his soul as well. Jairus was the recipient of Jesus' rope when his daughter was raised to life, as was Lazarus, who lived to tell of the same miracle. Feeding the hungry. Healing the sick. Giving sight to the blind. Listening to broken spirits. Keeping the faint-hearted from sinking. Dying on the cross for me and you. Jesus knew all about tossing ropes.
I frequently hear Christians claim they are Jesus' feet and hands extended, yet I'm not sure we do a bang-up job of going the extra mile to join into others' pain so that we truly feel their frustration or despair. Oh, we do great lip-service to the idea all right, but being the friend who truly empathizes is a rarity. Thanks to the "Love and Logic" workshop, we teachers have been encouraged to develop this practice with our students, but perhaps it's time we all start practicing our rope-throwing skills.