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Empathy by Sue Wright

Great minds! Well, it would be nice to think so, but I fear, only one of us fits that description. That being Brené Brown, not me. Still, I had to laugh when I saw the esteemed research professor, author, and speaker had chosen to blog about “Empathy,” on the morning I decided to make it the focus of my blog for Second this month—mine as yet unwritten the day I found hers on Facebook. To my credit, the two of us, both social workers, were of a “SAME mind,” anyway. 

My first instinct was to change topics. I wouldn’t want anyone to think I was plagiarizing someone else’s work. Instead, I “SAVED” Brené’s blog for later review and began to gather my own history with, and understanding of, the word. For instance, the fact that I had never heard of “empathy” until graduate school at MU when I was getting my masters in social work. That means I never heard anyone use the word as I grew from childhood to adulthood—not at home, not attending church all those years, not at William Jewell College studying sociology. The first time the word reached my ears was sitting in a Columbia, Missouri classroom, its meaning being taught to me as a necessary tool in the practice of social work—be that area of social work—casework, group work, or community organization. 

The professor kept it simple. Empathy was when a social worker feels “with” rather than “for” a client or patient—the elephant in the room to be trained out of us— sympathy. Sympathy was a word for greeting cards, not for therapists. Empathy was most defined as a listening ear, and on occasion, the courage to find in one’s self, what that other person had similarly felt, though never identically; then work to mine the shared ground of our human mutuality for a trust, worthy of that person handing their inner selves over to someone like me who might guide them to someplace better. Remembering, never to impose or demand more healed emotions until they were ready. To always respect the very individual nature of each of us and our personal experiences.

I like how Brené explains the difference between empathy and sympathy. She says, “Empathy fuels connection, its ‘feeling with’ allowing a kind of sacred space between people to enjoy real comfort. Sympathy, or ‘feeling for,’ on the other hand, often drives disconnection. Rarely, for example, does serving up a ‘so sorry, but at least’ – even well-meant—provide a hurting soul, lasting consolation.” 

Far as I can tell, you won’t find the word empathy in the King James Version of the Bible though there are many acts of empathy illustrated there. According to Google, empathy wasn’t even coined into the English language until 1909, so no wonder it isn’t in the Scriptures. I was surprised to read, some theologians actually reject empathy as a condition possible for you and me to acquire, believing only God has the power to be empathetic. Others preach just the opposite. They say empathy is waiting—I would like to hope—yearning—in each of us—to be learned, Jesus our teacher by example. 

Webster defines empathy as commiseration, compassion. It isn’t just a trait. It is a “complex suite of skills that build upon themselves.” Without a sense of empathy, be wary of yourself. You could be empathy’s antithesis—a sociopath.

For sure, reaching out with empathy is more a stretch of one’s inner strengths than merely expressing worn-out phrases of sympathy. FOR SURE, empathy requires practice, and even then, it’s hard to get it right. Still, as followers of Christ and as loving human beings, we need to try.



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