Category Archives: suffering

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?

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:

Stages of Faith and Beauty in the Wilderness

I originally posted Beauty In The Wilderness in March 2011 as I prepared for Lent.  I have done a rewrite so I could post it today as a contribution to the November Synchroblog: “Faith Stories”

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Over the years my faith has changed significantly – as I believe it should. For many years my faith was mostly about ascribing to a list of beliefs that were non-negotiable. Today my faith is more about living into the way of Jesus which mostly ends up being about loving others.

When I first started having questions and doubts about “the list” of non-negotiables I was really thrown off balance but over time I have become pretty comfortable with having more questions than answers and embracing the mystery of God.  I no longer believe that changing my mind about some faith related issue is evidence of a weak faith or being an immature Christian.  In fact, I ascribe to the idea that an active, vibrant life of faith will often lead to stages of faith that are filled with questions and doubts (see stage 4 in the chart below) which can lead to wonderful revelation and transformation (stages 5 & 6 in the chart) that always seemed out of reach in the midst of being so certain about everything. [1]

nextreformation.com wp admin resources stages of faith.pdf

These days I assume that I am surely wrong about a multitude of things that I believe at any given moment. However, that doesn’t stop me from living out my faith with conviction and passion. Instead, it imbibes me with a dose of humility that keeps me from feeling like the world has ended if I happen to discover that what I thought was true doesn’t hold up under serious study, thought, prayer and scrutiny.

One of the things that I have a significantly different perspective about these days is suffering … or “the wilderness” as it is often referred to by Christians.

“The wilderness holds answers to more questions than we have yet learned to ask.” – Nancy Wynne Newhall

I grew up hearing sermons and bible lessons that talked about God leading us into the wilderness in order to teach us something – about Him, about ourselves, about the world we live in. The “wilderness” was another word for suffering and the reason (they said) God led us into suffering was because in the midst of suffering he was able to get our attention, to cause us to trust him and to make us teachable and transformable.

I believed it and it made me very afraid of God.

Whether it was a relationship problem or an illness or unemployment I didn’t just have the anxiety of the problem at hand to deal with – I also had the emotional and spiritual agony of believing that God was making me suffer in order to get my attention so I could be transformed.

I don’t believe that anymore.

Now don’t get me wrong – I believe there are things I can learn in the wilderness and I believe my wilderness experiences do change me.  I even believe God can bring good out of wilderness situations – I just don’t believe God is causing or orchestrating my suffering. Of course I still battle those beliefs that set God up as my adversary but after I talk myself into remembering God isn’t causing my suffering I can more easily trust God in the midst of my wilderness.  And for as much as I dislike wilderness experiences and spend a fair amount of time and energy avoiding wilderness experiences it is in the wilderness where I have found out the most about who I really am and what my life is really about.  Not so much because of the suffering that takes place in the wilderness but because of the self awareness and self examination it causes, because of the focus it produces, because of the questions it births, because of the humility it generates.

“the wilderness is still one of the most reality-based, spirit-filled, life-changing places a person can be.” Barbara Brown Taylor

It was during a wilderness experience where I discovered God wasn’t the perpetrator of my suffering – that I didn’t need to be punished for who I was and it was okay for me to be me – in fact, it was better than okay, it was good.

Not long after that particular experience I ran across the poem Wild Geese by Mary Oliver and fell in love with it … not just because it is a beautifully crafted message but because it reminded me of the beautiful truth I had just discovered while wandering in the wilderness with God.

I leave you with Oliver’s poem in hopes that you too will discover something beautiful about yourself, about God and about the world you live in even when you find yourself wandering in the wilderness.

Wild Geese

You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
for a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.
Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and the deep trees,
the mountains and the rivers.
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting–
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.

Mary Oliver, Dream Work, 1986

[1] If you want to explore more about the stages of faith:

Read these three excellent blog posts about Stages in the Life of Faith  herehere and here which may lead you to read the book: The Critical Journey, Stages in the Life of Faith by Janet O. Hagberg & Robert A. Guelich

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Check out the other posts for this month’s synchroblog:

Beauty In The Wilderness

I originally posted Beauty In The Wilderness in March 2011 as I prepared for Lent.  I have edited it to eliminate the connection to Lent so I could repost it today as I have recently been connecting to many people who are presently wandering in the wilderness and I wanted to remind them that God is not causing their wilderness but he is with them in the wilderness.

“the wilderness is still one of the most reality-based, spirit-filled, life-changing places a person can be.” Barbara Brown Taylor

I grew up hearing sermons and bible lessons that talked about God leading us into the wilderness in order to teach us something – about Him, about ourselves, about the world we live in. The “wilderness” was another word for suffering and the reason (they said) God led us into suffering was because in the midst of suffering he was able to get our attention, to cause us to trust him and to make us teachable and transformable.

I believed it and it made me very afraid of God.

Whether it was a relationship problem or an illness or unemployment I didn’t just have the anxiety of the problem at hand to deal with – I also had the emotional and spiritual agony of believing that God was making me suffer in order to get my attention so I could be transformed.

I don’t believe that way anymore.

Now don’t get me wrong – I believe there are things I can learn in the wilderness and I believe my wilderness experiences do change me.  I even believe God can bring good out of wilderness situations – I just don’t believe God is causing or orchestrating my suffering. Of course I still battle those beliefs that set God up as my adversary but after I talk myself into remembering God isn’t causing my suffering I can more easily trust God in the midst of my wilderness.  And for as much as I dislike wilderness experiences and spend a fair amount of time and energy avoiding wilderness experiences it is in the wilderness where I have found out the most about who I really am and what my life is really about.  Not so much because of the suffering that takes place in the wilderness but because of the self awareness and self examination it causes, because of the focus it produces, because of the questions it births, because of the humility it generates.

It was during a wilderness experience where I discovered God wasn’t the perpetrator of my suffering – that I didn’t need to be punished for who I was and it was okay for me to be me – in fact, it was better than okay, it was good.

Not long after that particular experience I ran across the poem Wild Geese by Mary Oliver and fell in love with it … not just because it is a beautifully crafted message but because it reminded me of the beautiful truth I had just discovered while wandering in the wilderness with God.

I leave you with Oliver’s poem in hopes that you too will discover something beautiful about yourself, about God and about the world you live in even when you find yourself wandering in the wilderness.

Wild Geese

You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
for a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.
Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and the deep trees,
the mountains and the rivers.
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting–
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.

Mary Oliver, Dream Work, 1986

 

Beauty In The Wilderness

“the wilderness is still one of the most reality-based, spirit-filled, life-changing places a person can be.” Barbara Brown Taylor

I grew up hearing sermons and bible lessons that talked about God leading us into the wilderness in order to teach us something – about Him, about ourselves, about the world we live in. The “wilderness” was another word for suffering and the reason (they said) God led us into suffering was because in the midst of suffering he was able to get our attention, to cause us to trust him and to make us teachable and transformable.

I believed it and it made me very afraid of God.

Whether it was a relationship problem or an illness or unemployment I didn’t just have the anxiety of the problem at hand to deal with – I also had the emotional and spiritual agony of believing that God was making me suffer in order to get my attention so I could be transformed.

I don’t believe that way anymore.

Now don’t get me wrong – I believe there are things I can learn in the wilderness and I believe my wilderness experiences do change me.  I even believe God can bring good out of wilderness situations – I just don’t believe God is causing or orchestrating my suffering. Of course I still battle those beliefs that set God up as my adversary but after I talk myself into remembering God isn’t causing my suffering I can more easily trust God in the midst of my wilderness.  And for as much as I dislike wilderness experiences and spend a fair amount of time and energy avoiding wilderness experiences it is in the wilderness where I have found out the most about who I really am and what my life is really about.  Not so much because of the suffering that takes place in the wilderness but because of the self awareness and self examination it causes, because of the focus it produces, because of the questions it births, because of the humility it generates.  And that is why I am willing to create a sort of prototype wilderness for myself during the season of Lent.

By eliminating some distraction, creating a situation that forces me to focus, giving up a habit or convenience that typically acts as a painkiller and keeps me from entering the wilderness of the present moment where I can know what it is really like to be living the life I am presently living … and, if I am willing to push myself to stay with it for 40 days (because it takes a while to transition from being in a deep sleep to being fully awake) while remembering to connect with God through prayer and contemplation… it is there, in my prototype wilderness, where I just might discover (or rediscover) how to get free of something keeping me from being who I was meant to be, of living the life I was created to live, of realizing my place in the world I am living in.

It was during one of these prototype wildernesses when I discovered God wasn’t the perpetrator of my suffering – that I didn’t need to be punished for who I was and it was okay and good for me to be me.

Not long after that particular experience I ran across the poem Wild Geese by Mary Oliver and fell in love with it … not just because it is a beautifully crafted message but because it reminded me of the beautiful truth I had just discovered while wandering in my prototype wilderness with God.

I leave you with Oliver’s poem in hopes that you too will discover something beautiful about yourself, about God, about the world you live in during this season of Lent.

Wild Geese

You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
for a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.
Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and the deep trees,
the mountains and the rivers.
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting–
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.

Mary Oliver, Dream Work, 1986

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This post is part of the March Synchroblog “Experiences In The Wilderness” (in the spirit of Lent).

Here is a list of other stories from the wilderness:

Patrick (at Dual Ravens) was prolific with a four part series called “Musings” and they can be found here:
Part OnePart TwoPart Three and Part Four

Katherine Gunn at A Voice in the Desert writes What is Wilderness?

Wendy McCaig giving us a View from the Bridge brings A Voice Calling in the Wilderness

EmmaNadine who describes Life By List wonders about Life in the Wilderness

Tammy Carter of Blessing the Beloved is taking a rest as she Puts down the axe

Jeremy Myers writing at Til He Comes ponders The Gaping Chasm of Suicide

kathy escobar shares the carnival in my head and writes about belonging

Steve Hayes of Methodius describes Anatomy of exile

Marta Layton at Marta’s Mathoms writes On Sabbaths, Mountain-Tops… and Brothers’ Keepers

Liz Dyer at Grace Rules discovers Beauty In The Wilderness

Christen Hansel of Greener Grass offers up Snapshots of the Desert