The Nature of Empathy

By David Williamson | 07/22/2016

A few months back, a friend on staff showed me a short video, setting a section of Brene Brown's TED talk to animation. (If you have 3 minutes, it is very worth your time-check it out below.)


The subject of the clip is the nature of empathy (and how it is very different from sympathy). The analogy she uses is of someone who is stuck in a deep, dark hole. The "sympathetic" response just looks down on the person from a place of safety above. The empathetic response, in contrast, gets down in the hole with the person and simply says, "I know what it's like to be stuck, and you're not alone." One response creates isolation, the other fuels connection. And Brene's point is that connection is far more helpful than any sort of platitude or silver lining to make someone feel better.

I've been thinking about connection lately, and the fact that we are getting more and more disconnected from each other. Whether it's political division (which only seems wider as we watch each party's national conventions), or racial division (which has found fresh expression in recent shootings), or religious division (most often expressed along issues of sexuality) - regardless of which division you point towards, we are losing the ability more and more to speak with one another. We are losing connection.

Empathy is simply the ability to hit pause on our own thoughts, feelings, and concerns in order to connect to someone else's reality. As Brene says, it involves some risk, because we have to find something in our own experience that can connect to the feelings or experience of others. How much would our world, nation, and communities be improved if we could simply learn and practice that "pause to connect" before we speak?

This past week I had the opportunity to preach at the Later service at St. Luke's (which, if you've never attended Later, has the specific mission of being a multi-cultural expression of the body of Christ). I preached the exact same sermon that I'd preached that morning, and yet it was far different in that context. Some of the difference was because of the shooting in Baton Rouge that had taken place that afternoon, which put my words in a different light. But it was also different because I was more deeply aware, in that space, that as a white male I couldn't assume that we all shared the same experience and perspective on the world. I wondered if my words would connect, which in turn made me realize that perhaps I hadn't done enough to listen and connect with others before speaking.

Truth be told, I felt more vulnerable in that small gathering of 50 than I had all morning, speaking on much bigger platforms. But vulnerability is a gift; it's what drives and enables us to connect with others. (And I can testify thankfully that the community was gracious in receiving me as their pastor for the evening.)

When Dr. Marion Miller left this summer, it was decided to place Later under the leadership of John Ray. John served as a student pastor with Marion this past year. In addition to attending seminary at CTS, John is also the worship director at Light of the World, and there's a part of me that thinks God's hand was in his appointment. On August 7th, John has arranged a joint worship service between St. Luke's and Light of the World, to be hosted by the Later community. Both senior pastors will be present, I'm sure Rob will say more in coming weeks. But my hope is that it will be more than just a "sign of unity," but even more an opportunity for connection between our two churches and the communities we represent.

Whether it's at that service, or in the community service projects of the next two weekends, or just in your daily life - find some way to connect to the experience of those who might share a different perspective on the world. Hit "pause" long enough to listen. Because we all need a little more connection these days.


Pastor Dave