The other night I went to the bed of my visiting two-year-old grandson in the darkness of the mid-night. He had a cough and wanted a drink of water. I gave him his cup of cool water, which he greedily sipped. Then he laid back down, curled into his pillow, and was sound asleep.
I went back to my own bed and, as I laid my head on my pillow, I curled my fist up near my cheek as I had seen the sweet sleeping toddler do. It was an automatic imitation, and my fingers felt to me like the chubby little fingers of a child.
In that moment, I realized I was feeling for my grandson, as if I were my grandson. I had one of those rare flashes of insight; insight into my own nature, into the nature of my oh-so-loved grandchild, and into the nature of what it means to truly empathize, to feel as if you are someone else.
I realized that I am a very empathetic person. And I believe this empathy has led me in a number of directions in my life. I also know that the fear of this empathy, for it can be a very fearful gift, has held me back from going in other directions.
Empathy. I can find very little about what it means, although empathy is the word that came to me so strongly in my 'moment of insight.' I believe it to be more than having sympathy or caring for another person, although it certainly must involve that concern and love. Empathy seems best described by the phrase "putting yourself in someone else's shoes." For a moment, in empathy you actually know a bit of what it is like to be another person in their specific situation.
I believe my empathetic nature led me to an education in the field of psychology,and then the overwhelming nature of empathy made me leave the social work arena a few years later. As I came into contact with more and more people who were hurting, and I took on not only their pain but my own frustration at being powerless to make it better, I retreated to a life that I hoped would be an escape from it.
I confess that I often work very hard to block out my empathy. I cannot watch movies or TV shows about war, violence, hunger, or even about greed, ambition and vice. I do not view the agony of others, even fictional, as being entertaining. Their agony becomes my own and I can live it over again and again for days and, more often, nights.
Throughout my life, my empathetic nature has also caused me to avoid places where there are a large number of people. I used to think that it was shyness or possibly claustrophobia that made me avoid crowded places. But I now understand that I get too caught up with what is going on with the people around me. At concerts I watch the people in the audience and slip into their experience as much as, or more than, I watch the performance. Too many people, too much empathy. It can be exhausting and even overwhelming.
One of the situations that has become increasingly difficult for me is going to church. Churches are filled with people who are trying, and naturally failing, to be perfect. The church I attend is filled with people I love, whom I often disagree with on things that are important to us all. And it is very difficult for me to disagree with and empathize and love so many people in one place.
But empathy is a gift from God, and I know that He doesn't want me, or anyone, to turn away from it. I know this because I am called to be Christ-like, and Jesus was a most gifted Empathizer. He felt the pain of those around Him; He felt the emptiness of lives; He knew the neediness. He knew which ones would be blessed by His healing, and which ones needed the discipline of not being healed. I believe He also often felt overwhelmed by feeling all the hurts and needs of those around Him. He, too, needed time alone in the garden or in the wilderness. He needed to fill back up with the Spirit of His Father before He could again willingly be empathetic to the many needs of others. He needed time to be Jesus the man, and Jesus the child of God, before He could master the empathetic energy it would take to be Jesus, the Savior of us all.
From Him, I need to learn how to master my own small gift of empathy, which I have already confessed to be a sometime blessing and a sometime burden. I need time alone with God. I need to empty my self and my time of the needs of others and of myself, so I can refill with God's love and strength, which is much greater than any I possess alone. And I need to trust that God will place people in my path that He wants me to feel empathy for: my own precious family and those whose lives touch mine. I need to protect my empathetic nature from being used up by those I am not called to empathize with, especially fictional television characters. Using my empathy up that way would surely be a blessing to the enemies of the Lord.
I need to allow myself to be satisfied with knowing that my sweet grandchildren can use my empathy for a cup of water, a cuddle and a story. That my lonely sister in Christ needs my smile, a hug, and a few minutes of my undivided attention. That the bored supermarket cashier might like to be asked how her day is going, how her children are doing. That an upset friend doesn't need me to solve her problems, but to just sit and listen for a bit. That my tired spouse may need some quiet time alone, even if I am in the mood to chatter. And that my brother in Christ whom I disagree with is just wanting to serve God in the way that he believes is right, as am I.
I do not need to empathize with the whole world on a one-on-one basis. Jesus did that for me; for each of us. I just need to recognize that, when I find myself in someone else's shoes, I should pay attention. God may be speaking to me through them, or He may be giving me the opportunity to speak for Him to them. Or perhaps to just lovingly give them a cup of cool water...