Category Archives: Compassion

Human Connection and the Power of Empathy

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This post is part of the August synchroblog and the theme is “connection”.

When I think about connection I am reminded that significant, deep, meaningful connection with others is what I want most out of life. I think it is what most people desire. And yet there are times when we find the pursuit of connection daunting.

Brene’ Brown, who researches, writes, teaches and speaks on a range of topics, including connection, vulnerability, courage, worthiness, and shame says,

“Connection is why we’re here. It’s what gives purpose and meaning to our lives,”

She goes on to define connection as:

“the energy that exists between people when they feel seen, heard, and valued; when they can give and receive without judgment; and when they derive sustenance and strength from the relationship.”

In her books, Brown develops the idea that creating the kind of life giving connection that we are wired for requires empathy and then she drops this on us:

“we can only create a genuine empathic connection if we are brave enough to really get in touch with our own fragilities.”

Boom! There’s the problem, isn’t it!?

In order to experience the kind of connection that we long for we are going to have to put ourselves out there. We are going to have to be vulnerable and take some risks. We are going to have to share our own fears and failings and fragilities.

And we can’t substitute sympathy for empathy. Sympathy isn’t a bad thing – it just doesn’t lead to the deep, meaningful connections we long for – for that we are going to need to “feel with people”.

Here’s the difference in sympathy and empathy:

Empathy is the ability to mutually experience the thoughts, emotions, and direct experience of others. It goes beyond sympathy, which is a feeling of care and understanding for the suffering of others. 

The RSA (Royal Society for the encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce), an enlightenment organisation committed to finding innovative practical solutions to today’s social challenges, created a great animated short that uses Brene’ Brown’s commentary about empathy and how it leads to connection:

If we can learn to be vulnerable enough to risk practicing empathy we open up the potential to experience the kind of life giving, whole hearted, healing connection we long for.

Empathy is connection!

Be sure and check out these other posts for this month’s synchroblog:

Jerry Wirtley – Connection
Sara Quezada – Can You Really Know Someone In A Different Language?
Ford – Interindependence
Michael Donahoe – Connection
Minnow – Our Dis-Connect
Justin Steckbauer – Connection in Love, it’s what Life is all about!
Carol Kuniholm – Disengagement and Connection
Wesley Rostoll – Finding Jesus In Different Places
Doreen A Mannion – A bunny, a fawn and some geese walk into a bar …
Leah Sophia – Touch of Life
Karen “Charity” Aldrich – Wuv True Wuv
Abbie Watters – Connection – Addicted to the Buzz
Liz Dyer – Human Connection and the Power of Empathy
Loveday Anyim – Why Get Connected to God when He can’t be there for Me?

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Uncomfortable Love

This post is a contribution to the February Synchroblog “Loving Your Enemies”. Check out the links to all the other contributions to the February Synchroblog listed at end of this piece.

As a follower of Jesus I have to take the instruction to love my enemy seriously.

The biggest problem I have with loving my enemies is that I’m uncomfortable with it.

It doesn’t feel good and it’s hard – really hard – and it’s not fun either.

Sometimes I try to water the instruction down a little and make it more palatable.

I say to myself “loving your enemies doesn’t mean that you feel all warm and fuzzy about them” or “loving your enemies doesn’t mean you have to invite them over for dinner” or “loving your enemies is a process” or “you don’t have to love your enemies the same way you love your friends”

And while all of those things may be true I don’t know that grabbing on to disclaimers gets me any closer to loving my enemies.

Other times I declare, “I don’t have any enemies!” because if I don’t have any enemies I don’t have to worry about loving them – but we all have experienced being hurt by someone and enemies come in many different forms.

And finally, if I get really honest with myself, I want to know how far forgiveness and love have to go.  What does it mean to love my enemy? What does that actively look like? Does that mean I let people take advantage of me? How does my passion for justice co-exist with compassion for my enemy?

I don’t have a lot of answers but over time I have discovered a few things – some good and some not so good …

sometimes understanding my enemy helps me to love them

unfortunately most of the time loving my enemy doesn’t change them

loving my enemy helps me remain free of bitterness and negativity

loving my enemy takes more strength than hating my enemy

hating my enemy takes more energy than loving my enemy

preparing my response in advance can help me love my enemy

loving my enemy does not mean that I don’t oppose what they do or say or believe

loving my enemy is uncomfortable 99% of the time

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Even with what I know I am almost always constantly just at the edge of chucking the whole idea of loving my enemies but something or someone usually seems to come along to give me a little encouragement to keep on trying.

Sometimes it’s a story like the one of 14-year-old Malala who was shot in the head by a Taliban gunman while on a bus in the Swat Valley. She made a full recovery in England, and became a remarkable, brave voice for the rights of women.  When Jon Stewart interviewed her he asked her what her reaction had been when she found out that the Taliban wanted to kill her. Her words have taken up a permanent residence in my heart.

“I used to think that the Talib would come, and he would just kill me. But then I said, if he comes, what would you do Malala?’ then I would reply to myself, ‘Malala, just take a shoe and hit him.’ But then I said, “If you hit a Talib with your shoe, then there would be no difference between you and the Talib. You must not treat others with cruelty and that much harshly, you must fight others but through peace and through dialogue and through education. Then I said I will tell him how important education is and that ‘I even want education for your children as well,’ and I will tell him, ‘That’s what I want to tell you, now do what you want.'”

Malala’s story reminds me that loving my enemies is about aspiring to something good and right. That loving my enemies promotes peace and goodness for all.  That loving my enemies does not mean I am weak but takes all of my strength and courage.

But if I’m honest I have to admit that there are days when nothing inspires me.

Some days I just feel tired and weak.

On those days, when I can’t find any sane reason to keep on loving my enemies, when I am crushed by those who seem to be the most unloving and unkind, when I feel the weight of fear and anger becoming heavier than hope and love, when I am wrestling with what it means to stand up for the oppressed and at the same time to love the oppressors … on those days I utter the only line I can remember from a prayer penned by a Serbian priest during World War II …

 “Bless my enemies, O Lord. Even I bless them and do not curse them.”

The words come from a prayer written by St. Nicolai of Ochrid, a Serbian priest, who was arrested by the Nazi’s during World War II. As the story goes he was betrayed by a fellow priest. As he sat in prison, anger began to consume him, leading him eventually to pen these words:


Bless my enemies, O Lord. Even I bless them and do not curse them. Enemies have driven me into your embrace more than friends have. Friends have bound me to earth; enemies have loosed me from earth and have demolished all my aspirations in the world.

Enemies have made me a stranger in worldly realms and an extraneous inhabitant of the world.

Just as a hunted animal finds safer shelter than an unhunted animal does, so have I, persecuted by enemies, found the safest sanctuary, having ensconced myself beneath Your tabernacle, where neither friends nor enemies can slay my soul.

Bless my enemies, O Lord. Even I bless and do not curse them.

They, rather than I, have confessed my sins before the world. They have punished me, whenever I have hesitated to punish myself. They have tormented me, whenever I have tried to flee torments. They have scolded me, whenever I have flattered myself. They have spat upon me, whenever I have filled myself with arrogance. Bless my enemies, O Lord. Even I bless them and do not curse them.

Whenever I have made myself wise, they have called me foolish. Whenever I have made myself mighty, they have mocked me as though I were a [fly].

Whenever I have wanted to lead people, they have shoved me into the background.

Whenever I have rushed to enrich myself, they have prevented me with an iron hand.

Whenever I thought that I would sleep peacefully, they have wakened me from sleep.

Whenever I have tried to build a home for a long and tranquil life, they have demolished it and driven me out.

Truly, enemies have cut me loose from the world and have stretched out my hands to the hem of your garment.

Bless my enemies, O Lord. Even I bless them and do not curse them.

Bless them and multiply them; multiply them and make them even more bitterly against me:

So that my fleeing will have no return; So that all my hope in men may be scattered like cobwebs; So that absolute serenity may begin to reign in my soul; So that my heart may become the grave of my two evil twins: arrogance and anger;

So that I might amass all my treasure in heaven; Ah, so that I may for once be freed from self-deception, which has entangled me in the dreadful web of illusory life.

Enemies have taught me to know what hardly anyone knows, that a person has no enemies in the world except himself. One hates his enemies only when he fails to realize that they are not enemies, but cruel friends.

It is truly difficult for me to say who has done me more good and who has done me more evil in the world: friends or enemies. Therefore bless, O Lord, both my friends and my enemies. A slave curses enemies, for he does not understand. But a son blesses them, for he understands.

For a son knows that his enemies cannot touch his life. Therefore he freely steps among them and prays to God for them. Bless my enemies, O Lord. Even I bless them and do not curse them.

What helps you to practice the uncomfortable act of loving your enemies?  

Here are more blog posts about Loving Your Enemies:

A Social Justice Story

This post is part of the October Synchroblog: What is social justice?  I’ll add a list of all the other contributions at the end of this post as soon as they are available.

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“Once social change begins, it cannot be reversed. You cannot uneducate the person who has learned to read. You cannot humiliate the person who feels pride. You cannot oppress the people who are not afraid anymore. We have seen the future, and the future is ours.” -Cesar Chavez

Social justice is difficult to define. I heard someone say that there have been whole books written about social justice which never offer a concise definition. And so you can easily understand why I feel inadequate to offer up a definition. However, I am compelled to share a story with you that I believe has the definition of social justice written between it’s lines.

This story is true and it was written by my friend Hugh Hollowell who leads a ministry called Love Wins. Hugh is a perfect example of what it looks like to work for and practice social justice.  He inspired me to become a person who is aware of injustices in the world and to be brave enough to fight against injustices in word and deed.

She Call Me Bobby by Hugh Hollowell  

Several folks have wanted me to talk about what I do day-to-day.

“I don’t get it,” one correspondent said, “You just talk to the homeless? About what?”

Well, I do more than just talk to folks who are experiencing homelessness, but that is a big part of what I do. I want to show you how one such conversation went down just this morning.

Note: The way we talk, the choice of words we use, all of that is part of our story and part of who we are. Life on the streets is not pretty and it is not polite. Many in my position clean up the language when reporting what is said, but I have chosen to leave it.

*****

I was on my way to use the Internet at Morning Times (a coffee shop and, most days, my office) when I saw a gang of folks I know over by Betty’s van. I stroll over. The mood is solemn.

“Hey guys,” I said, “What’s going on?”

Everyone murmurs and shuffles, looking at the ground. I notice that one older guy everyone calls Slim was sullen and weeping.

“Slim,” I said, “How’s it going?”

“Bad,” he says. “I went to give plasma this morning like I always do on Fridays. This time, they wouldn’t give me any money. Instead, they told me I’m HIV positive.”

HIV. For most Americans it no longer means what it once did. However, these folks know that, if they get it, they probably won’t have access to the life-giving drug cocktails and cutting edge treatments. They all know someone who has died as a result of being positive.

For them, HIV spells death.

Having already heard this story, the crowd begins to melt away. I’m uncertain if it’s out of a desire to give us some privacy or a desire to get out of the cold– in any event, it was welcome.

I have known Slim for about two and a half months. I have helped several of his friends with job applications and have let them use my computer to check their email for messages from family. He knows me to say hi, but he has never really opened up to me. He is much older than most of the street folks, perhaps 50 or so. He told me once in conversation he had been homeless for seven years.

“They tested me, like they always do,” he begins to explain. “They test you every time. They wanted me to sign a paper saying I had HIV, but I ain’t signing shit.”

After several minutes of conversation, I managed to extract the following details.

That morning, Slim went to sell plasma. Many who are currently homeless do this as it is the only thing many of them have to sell. You lay on a cot and stare at the wall while they insert a needle in your arm. After they take blood from your body and extract the plasma, they put the blood back in you. They sell the plasma to the various bio-med places for research and pay you $20 – $35 and you can expect it to take about two hours. If you are a regular donor, they pay bonuses and an extra $5 every third visit, they say.

The routine tests on his blood for HIV showed positive. He was told he had to sign a statement saying he knew he was HIV positive. He refused and left – he later reveals that reading is not something he does well, so he has a fear of signing anything. Understandably, he was in shock by the time I heard this story, so the finer details were a bit harder to nail down. As near as I can tell, he had no second test and no referral to any health care options.

“You need to go to the Health Department,” I said. “You need to know for sure.”

Slim is crying. “It’s Christmas, man. I don’t need this.”

It goes like this for about 10 minutes, when I realize that Slim doesn’t have the two dollars for the bus to go out to the Health Department. I assure him I can spare $2.

“Will you walk with me to the bus station?” he asks.

“Be glad to.”

We begin to walk toward Moore Square Station, the central hub for the transit system here in Raleigh. Slim is beginning to calm down. He has the two dollars that I gave him clutched in a death grip in his hand.

“You are a nice man,” Slim says. “I know you help Sam and Julia out with clothes and help them, let them use your phone. I tell everyone what a nice man you are. I would ask to borrow your phone, but I got no one to call.”

“No one?” I said.

“Well, I got a Mom, but I haven’t talked to her in four years. I want to call her, but I’m scared. I’m afraid she don’t want nothing to do with me anymore. I done bad things.”

We talk about his Mom for a bit. It turns out she lives in Maryland and the family has endured one too many broken promises, so they no longer talk. I urge him to call because four years is a long time. He promises to think about it.

“You’re a nice man. Why you so nice? I mean, you help us out, you talk to us… I ain’t nothing, man. My own Momma don’t want to talk to me, you don’t even know me and you help me. Why you doing this?”

I hesitate. I know folks who would see this as an opportunity to swoop in, tract in hand, tell them about how Jesus will solve all their problems, fix everything. I try to imagine what Jesus would say.

“I care about you guys when it makes no sense to, because Jesus loved me when it made no sense for him to,” I tell Slim.

He perks up, looks at me from the side of his eyes.

“Jesus?” he said.

“Yup. Jesus,” I said.

I think I have lost him now. He surprises me.

“I know Jesus loves me – my momma told me,” he said. “But that Jesus, he is a motherfucker.”

I have no idea what to say to that.

“Yeah?” I said.

“Oh yeah. The thing about Jesus is, he don’t cut you no slack. Jesus is hard.”

“Yeah,” I said. “I know.”

We’re at the blue section of the transit station, waiting on the bus. The air is cold on my ears, the turbulence from the exhaust fumes pressing my jeans against my ankles. The two dollars has managed to disappear. After a lengthy search they turn up in a coat pocket.

“Thank you for doing this,” he said. “I don’t want to die from HIV.”

“Well,” I said, “we are not even sure you have HIV. The first step is to find out for sure.”

We agree to meet up this afternoon in Moore Square about dark so he can let me know what the verdict is. While we are working out the details, the bus pulls up and the doors open, a line of patient commuters waiting to board.

It’s one of those moments – they happen sometimes – when I think God tells me just the right thing to say.

“Slim,” I said. “What does your momma call you?”

He smiled, remembering. “Bobby. She call me Bobby.”

“OK, Bobby,” I said. “I will see you tonight.”

He laughs that I use his name. “Do you think Jesus cares I have HIV?” he asked.

“If you have HIV, then Jesus would be heartbroken,” I said.

“You gonna pray for me, aren’t you?” he asked.

I assure him I will. The breath is almost knocked out of me as he tackles me in a spontaneous bear hug, tears running down his face.

“If it is OK, I gonna pray for you too,” he said into my coat.

Then he turns, embarrassed at the sudden emotion and steps onto the bus.

As he waves to me from his seat two thirds of the way back, the bus pulls away, the exhaust kicking up leaves that swirl around my feet as both our tears dry on my coat.

If you want to know more about Hugh and Love Wins and how to get involved and help go here.

Check out the rest of these posts about Social Justice:

Quotes Worth Repeating – Defining Compassion

 

“Compassion is sometimes the fatal capacity for feeling what it is like to live inside somebody else’s skin. It is the knowledge that there can never really be any peace and joy for me until there is peace and joy finally for you too. “

                                                                                                                             -Frederick Buechner

The Human Potential

My youngest son is a high school senior this year and has spent a lot of time in the last several months applying to colleges.  Of course that means that he had to write several essays.  I have really enjoyed reading his essays and have learned some things about him that I didn’t know.  Here is one of my favorites that he wrote (this is the shorter of two versions of this essay as he reworked it for one university that requested less than 500 words).

The Human Potential by Joey Dyer

 

There I was, in McAllen,TX, kneeling down in front of a 40-something-year-old Hispanic woman washing her bare feet, having the most important revelation of my life.

I’ve gone on annual summer mission trips with my church youth group every year for the past six years, and I’ve grown to learn more about myself and society as a whole in the process. My trip to McAllen, however, was the first trip that caused me to reexamine and fundamentally change the way I live my life.

It was the summer after my freshman year in high school. I had developed a strong bond over the years with my youth group, a bond that inspired deep-seated trust and admiration among each other. I was the first of my timid group that summer day to walk up to a complete stranger and begin cleaning the dirt and sweat off their feet, but it was what followed that changed my outlook on life. As prevalent as their trepidation was just moments ago, my example allowed the other members of my group to step over the boundary of fear and release their inhibitions. One by one everyone followed my lead and began cleansing the feet of others.

I’m not boasting about my fearlessness or some special ability to lead those around me. My actions could have been performed by any other person within my youth group had I not been the first to volunteer. The sheer chance nature of the situation – just happening to be the first to step forward – helped me realize the innate ability to lead we all possess, and how often this gift is squandered.

Ever since that mission trip, I’ve tried to live my life taking into account not only how my actions affect others, but what I might be encouraging others to do. This is one of the core reasons why I became a Link Leader at my school the following year and why I want to work with other high school senior men in my church youth group to implement a mentoring program. I believe the most effective way to impact a community positively comes not through passing laws or voting for certain candidates, but by interacting with others on a personal level.

The revelation that I had that summer day while kneeling at the feet of another inspired me not only to believe in my own potential but to also believe in the potential of others as well.  Since that day I have continued to be passionate about starting a wave of responsibility in every community I am a part of.

After washing his disciples’ feet, Jesus tells them “you also should wash one another’s feet. I have set you an example that you should do as I have done for you.” The act of helping others is good in its own right, but others learning to follow in these actions is the birthplace of compassion.