Empathy and Showing Care

March 30, 2014  Sam. 16.1-13; Ep. 5.8-14; Jn. 9.1-41

How many times have you, like me, driven past a man holding a sign that says, “Will work for food”? Perhaps, you, like me, have probably wondered about that man’s story.  Is he a man who through a tragic event was removed from a marriage, or separated from his children, or is he hopelessly addicted to alcohol or drugs?  Or maybe he just won’t take his anti-psychotic medication.  Or he may be a fugitive from the law or he may have amnesia and not even know who he is! Or maybe he’s just a hungry man looking for work and is panhandling to tide himself over.  In any case, we can look, wonder, and perhaps help, or we could avert our eyes and not see him at all. 

When we see and respond to others it’s the result of “empathy”.  The dictionary defines empathy as the imaginative identification of someone else’s feelings, or thoughts, or experience.  The act of trying to understand the story of this man with the sign is an act of empathy.   I was intrigued by a new study that said if you are a reader of fiction, you learn to empathize in ways that nonreaders don’t.  Sometimes I think that that’s what reading the Bible is about…trying to understand our selves and others and our God through story.

A new collection of essays by Leslie Jameson entitled The Empathy Exams, says that empathy is a choice we make.  We choose to pay attention, we choose to extend our ability to care to another and that requires an “exertion” from us. It may happen because we feel we should or it may happen because the other person asked us for help, but even if somebody has to ask for help, that doesn’t make a response to them shallow or less important.  We could just as easily choose to ignore them. The act of caring has an integrity all it’s own, so that even if we are duped…deceived…or manipulated by the other...we acted, we reached out.  We are programmed to help others.  Humans know we need each other.  So, why don’t we help each other, all the time?  

I’m not sure we could.  Perhaps that’s why we invent explanations for other people’s misery.  We lay the blame on them and we figure it gives us an “out” for not helping. Fool me once, shame on you.  Fool me twice, shame on me.  We can be steeled against responding or we can even experience “empathy fatigue” as when we become aware of a multitude of problems in the world and we have to just shut down to avoid further exposure so we aren’t overwhelmed!  When I think about the ruthless slaughter of women and children and refugees in Syria, or the needless suffering of poor, innocent children paralyzed by polio because their parents refused a free vaccination, after being aware of these and many other problems…it’s like our caring muscle gets tired and needs a rest.  Things seem so big, so complicated, or so convoluted…we don’t know what to do.  What can ONE person do to make a difference?  That’s the power of empathy…the question is not how can I cure all the throbbing, painful situations in the world, but will I respond to this one.

That’s precisely the situation in the gospel of John today…when Jesus and the disciples encountered a beggar who was blind from birth, and Jesus is asked if it was this man’s fault or the sin of his parents that caused this blindness.  And Jesus said the man’s blindness is an opportunity to reveal the glory of God.  Jesus seems to be saying…all through your lives, again and again—we will be given opportunities to respond, to empathize and this in some way applies a balm to the pains of the world.  A compassionate response can light many a darkened situation. And that’s what the gospel invites us to do, to bring light into a “will work for food” situation.  Some would say, “Look, these people and their problems are always going to be there.  Didn’t Jesus say, ‘You will always have the poor’?”  But this is not something against which one can just build a fence or dig a hole or ignore the problem.

Did you know that one in every one hundred people in this country is in prison?  Doesn’t that strike you as extraordinary?  These numbers are much higher than the incarceration rates of any other developed country in the free world and they’re even higher than the totalitarian regimes of China, Russia, or Cuba.  This challenging economy in which we live has spread pain far and wide.  We may see a neighbor struggle with unemployment or illness or family issues like a divorce, and in each case empathy calls us to respond. Prisons are like landfills, they allow us to bury problems out of sight.  Quite frankly, it takes a resolute heart even to think on these difficulties let alone look into solving them. To put this like the disciples put to Jesus, could we say that these situations are the result of sin or are they just opportunities for God to be glorified?  I believe it’s probably a measure of both. If we label an unfortunate person with a pejorative term like “sinner,” or “cheat” or “addict” or “delinquent”, it allows us the emotional distance to be able to dismiss or disregard their suffering. But empathy urges us to find a way to change things…to find a leverage point to address issues and problems.  To bring light to dark circumstances.

You know, when I was a kid, my younger brother and I were the first generation of TV watchers.  I remember watching cartoons in which the Roadrunner would do all kinds of tricks on the poor Coyote and he always seemed to bounce back.  We decided to play a trick on my dad when he came home from work.  So, we got one of my mom’s sewing needles and we put it on the middle cushion of the couch and covered it with one of my dad’s handkerchiefs and we asked him to sit on it…which he did.  We couldn’t understand why there was such a fuss when he bounced back up in pain.  He obviously was not a coyote…and his pain was real.  I guess the reason I remember that to this day is that it was an early lesson in empathy.  Pain is real and the consequences in people’s lives is real.  We can do many things or avoid doing things that cause others’ pain and we can respond to those who are in pain.  That is empathy…we need it.

How blind are we to God’s working in our midst?  How many times does God present opportunities for us reveal the glory of God, but we are too timid or blind to respond to or even see God’s invitation?  We dismiss God’s presence in others…we do not allow God to open our eyes nor the eyes of others to the power to renew the face of the earth or to change human hearts. It’s a measure of our empathy. What if we saw a street person who held a sign that said, “Will Work for Food,” would we help them?  Could God at this moment be presenting us with such a challenge?  Will we allow God’s glory to be revealed by stepping forward and allowing Christ to open our eyes? But really, that’s always the question, isn’t it?

The Reverend Wayne Ray