After I invited subscribers to share their experiences of reaching out with empathy, I received this response, printed with permission:
Good morning Gordon,
I’ve been thinking and praying about an opportunity to share something centered around your empathy emails. God has really used your words to open my mind to a fuller understanding of what that really means in so many areas: my prayer life, my actions and my REactions to life issues. Here’s something I feel the Lord leading me to share.
Several years ago a very dear girlfriend lost her husband. She was able to share details of how she felt and how difficult it was for her to cope with simple daily responsibilities – but the most devastating for her was the loneliness and isolation because she felt like a 3rd or 5th wheel in a gathering of her friends who still had their husbands- it was nothing they did. She knew it was her own feelings of anguish, depression and anxiety that propelled those feelings. Now 6 years later she still struggles but with more grace and more God-centered enlightenment, which gives her great strength. She’s a very strong Christian, so she knew “what” she had to do & “how” to do it, but her emotions often got the best of her, which paralyzed her. I listened but admittedly didn’t truly empathize.
I have felt sad for her while trying to understand. My husband and I have felt a prodding from the Lord to supply her with financial help: food, physical help around her house etc. She has always been very appreciative.
Truth be fully told though – I can’t say I ever tried to “empathize” with her by putting myself in her place. It was too painful to go that far, perhaps. God forgive me.
Once I began putting your ideas for empathy into place with her, I noticed the Lord opening several doors toward other women I barely knew and another I’ve known for many years who also had lost their husbands. I guess we’re now at that stage of life where this occurs more often. You know like when you’re 18 and all your friends are graduating High School, then, at age 23, college graduations, soon after weddings, then children, and grandchildren, and now this.
As the Lord began to make me more astute to my new friends’ agonizing pain through the loss of their husbands I was able to “empathize” – hopefully enough – certainly more than before and hopefully more in the future as I’m willing to let God fill that part of me and pour it out. I had to ASK the Lord to help me do this, though.
What I’ve seen is a tremendous outpouring of the Holy Spirit on their lives, as well as my own. It’s incredible!! It’s spirit-filled! It’s joy-filled! I became so overwhelmed with a deep thankfulness for still having my dear husband with me here on earth! I don’t expect to be able to fully grasp their pain in entirety because that hasn’t been my experience but I can certainly utilize “empathy” toward them that I’ve found has been life changing for these widows and me! – It’s also contagious! I noticed as others in my church witnessed this outpouring of the Holy Spirit through empathetic energies and more hands-on prayer and actions, others began to display the same feelings of empathy and tribute to these widows. What a God we have! These women have expressed, with tears running down their faces, that their void has been filling in, due to all this which was, I believe, triggered by simple but profound empathy from so many – directed by the Holy Spirit!
Thank You, Lord, and thank you, Gordon, for bringing this incredible lesson into a full spectrum of light.
I think of the following verses. (Italics mine)
“As for me, I baptize you with water for repentance, but He who is coming after me is mightier than I, and I am not fit to remove His sandals; He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.” Matthew 3:11 “He saved us, not on the basis of deeds which we have done in righteousness, but according to His mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewing by the Holy Spirit,” Titus 3:5 “For by one Spirit we were all baptized into one body, whether Jews or Greeks, whether slaves or free, and we were all made to drink of one Spirit.” 1 Cor. 12:13
“Honour widows that are widows indeed. But if any widow have children or nephews, let them learn first to shew piety at home, and to requite their parents: for that is good and acceptable before God.” 1 Timothy 5: 3-4
“Pure religion and undefiled before God and the Father is this, To visit the fatherless and widows in their affliction, [and] to keep himself unspotted from the world.” James 1:27 “And in those days, when the number of the disciples was multiplied, there arose a murmuring of the Grecians against the Hebrews, because their widows were neglected in the daily ministration.” Acts 6:1
Abba, help me to remain steadfast in all that You encourage me to do. Keep me ever vigilant to learn of You through any means You deem necessary so that I may be obedient to Your call on my life. Forgive me for being slothly in my desire to understand because of my own selfish fears. Help me to put on faith in place of fear; strength instead of weakness; love instead of indifference. Show me the errors of my ways always. In Jesus’ precious name, Amen!
Blessings and honor and glory to our King of kings!
[Photo: helpguide.org No infringement of copyright intended.]
“That’s Why And Z Too!”
Why is empathy important? As a boy, whenever I didn’t want to do what my mother asked, like many kids, I’d ask, “Why?” Mom would inevitably come back with, “That’s Why and Z, too!” In other words, “Do what I say, or else.” She’d had a hard life growing up, so whenever I complained, she’d launch into her, “Well your mother had it hard, too!” speech. She’d then recount her story. Mom had little, if any, empathy. She seemed uninterested in my story, or in my feelings. A lot of parents do this, so it’s not abnormal. Except, she did this so much that I learned not to share my deepest thoughts or concerns with her. I didn’t believe she had empathy for me.
Why is Empathy Important?
Empathy, the ability to put yourself in another person’s shoes, raises important questions. In my last blog, which you can read here, I recounted a salient experience that formed the beginning of my initial efforts to become a chaplain, later a counselor. Not everyone, however, is in the same position. You may wonder, therefore, why it’s so important to learn how others feel, think, or believe. You may have little or no interest in becoming a chaplain, counselor, or pastor. “Why must I learn this skill of empathy?” you may ask.
Another reason you may feel this is not something I need: Don’t we mostly want to know how we can get our point across? Isn’t it more important to skillfully amass facts, evidence, and logic in order to convince others of the rightness of our opinion?
Before I explain further the how of empathic responses, therefore, I want to explore some important reasons for learning empathy, the ability to put ourselves into the experience of another, the ability to look at the number above from the other person’s perspective. Why do we need empathy? We can see in the drawing that both parties look ridiculous. To avoid misunderstandings, to enhance communication, and to facilitate agreement, therefore, we need to learn empathy.
Doctors Need Empathy
Recently, one of my doctors reported that the medical profession is very interested in the issues of empathy right now. They want to learn how better to listen to their patients’ concerns. Your doctor needs to show empathy. That’s because you need empathy from your doctor. You will no doubt recall an incident when your doctor talked only diagnosis and treatment, with perhaps some history of your disease. He or she omitted any consideration of how your medical problem affected you as a person. They also never asked how hard it was to live with your condition. Or the time, when you had a complicated pregnancy and your doctor told you to go to bed! The impact of your plight eluded him or her. How would you manage your household (cooking, washing, cleaning for children and husband)–from bed? It seemed more comfortable to stay with medical facts, rather than talk with you.
Who Else Needs Empathy?
Why is empathy important for your boss? He has his expectations to accomplish the important task at hand. But he wants to steamroll your objections into the how you will impliment the new policies. He refuses to listen. He threatens you with firing if you persist. No empathy for you.
Your pastor needs to show empathy. If you come with a personal problem, but all he or she says is Bible verses or gives only instructions on prayer, you will leave frustrated. No empathy. Learning empathy is difficult. At least it was for me. In my previous post, I shared my early learning experience. That was not easy; I became painfully aware of my failure to cue in to the other person, and that I was preoccupied about how I perceived the lady’s depression. As a result, I minimized her suffering. This is a common error, at least for beginners. To read a valuable article on how to develop empathy, click here.
My Recent Failure
I still need to work on empathy. A friend started to share with me about his declining mental ability and even hinted at his eventual death. I changed the subject. So even an experienced and skilled person can allow someone else’s hurt, struggle, or grief, to make us feel uncomfortable (anxious) enough to avoid their tentative message. When we fail at empathy, we fail our friend. I failed my friend.
[Credits: Illustration: See It From My Side: DZone.com Article: https://dzone.com/articles/agile-transformation-for-non-it-teams]
Empathy helps us negotiate difficult conversations. As a beginning chaplain on a ward for patients with mental disorders, I encountered a woman who stood, while I sat to talk with her. “I want to die,” she cried. Trying to respond to her despair, I stated, “Life can’t be THAT bad!” Although I can’t recall what she said, I do recall her answering me back strongly. I remember also feeling stymied as to how to respond. Our conversation lasted only briefly. I later talked with my chaplain supervisor about my experience. He put her tears into perspective when he said, “The state just took her children away.”
I Had A Lot To Learn
What a jerk! I thought as a new chaplain I was smart, but in reality, of course, I was just ignorant. I didn’t realize how little understanding I had of how a woman crying might be feeling. Rather than inquire about the meaning of her crying, I immediately interpreted her behavior in terms I could understand. Blind to her sorrow, I had minimized her grief.
Such a blunder is easy to fall into. We see someone in deep distress. But our normal strategies for responding don’t seem appropriate. We therefore feel uncomfortable. This is our anxiety. We don’t really know what to say. We could remain silent. Sometimes that’s the best plan. But our friend looks for your response, too. And sometimes we feel compelled to say something. Usually what we say doesn’t help. Out of my awkwardness, I blundered.
Empathy Helps Difficult Conversations
Empathy helps us negotiate difficult conversations. But it takes hard work to leave our world in order to enter someone else’s frame of reference. This doesn’t come naturally because we’re mostly concerned with ourselves. Therefore, when someone expresses deep emotion (anger, sadness, joy), we tend to retreat behind our natural protective barrier of our own perception. We may feel pushed, even attacked.
As a result, we usually interpret other people’s emotions or behavior according to our perception. This experience, one among many that summer, helped me begin to understand how much skill it takes to get me out of my own frame of reference and into another’s. I had many such experiences, along with talks with supervisors – other chaplains and psychiatrists. They were experienced. I had a lot to learn. Such learning is painful: I felt humiliated, ashamed, and helpless. But it was just such experiences that launched me into my career as a pastor and as a counselor. Talking with supervisors helped me understand how others felt. It wasn’t always important how I felt. My task was to reach out to others with words of healing, to benefit them. This was not normal conversation, let alone discussion or debate. These were my beginnings of learning empathy.
Questions to Ask Yourself
How do you respond to another’s emotional pain? It’s easy to spot someone else’s blunders, but difficult to admit our own. If you are willing, I’d like to offer you some ways to help you learn these lessons. You can begin by asking yourself these questions:
When I hear someone else express hurt, loss, or anger, do I:
- Want to learn more?
- Try to evade looking at their eyes?
- Tell them in no uncertain terms that their emotions are misplaced?
- Quote a Bible verse that seems relevant?
Empathy helps us negotiate difficult conversations. If you’d like to learn the skill of empathy, join me in this exploration of what empathy means. If you would do anything other than #1, you need these important tips on learning to listen better. Even if you would do #1 (you think), you may need a quick refresher to learn why, and to improve your responses in relating to others in distress. If reading this and the following blogs on this subject can help you become a better listener, I will feel gratified. I will feel rewarded If I can save you the sense of failure I felt. If I can help you become a better friend, a better listening comforter for friends in grief, and even a better representative of Jesus’ love, I will feel greatly satisfied.
Looking for a place to start? Download my “Top 10 Tips on Grief and Loss,” by clicking: gordon-grose.ck.page/grieftips
[Credit: Woman crying: Victoria Borodinova Images, Pixabay.com]
Book Review: Heart Attachments: How What You Love Shapes Your Thinking, Behaviors and Destiny, by Bruce Hammond (2020). eBook and paperback.
Author Hammond wrote Heart Attachments from his and Jean, his wife’s, exploration of their dissatisfaction with their Christian lives. For one thing, “…we didn’t feel valuable unless we fulfilled specific standards,” he writes. “…There was an unsettled feeling,” therefore. Then, he continues, “…we were not accepted by God or people unless we lived up to certain criteria.” “We had so many questions for God,” he acknowledges. Finally, they wanted to know: “How would we positively change our thinking, heal our emotions, rightly align our beliefs, and change our behaviors?” This exploration led into an in-depth, personal, ongoing relationship with the living God.
Heart Attachments Well-written
This book shows good logic, well-crafted writing, and sound use of Scripture. It contains carefully chosen Scripture texts and stories to advance his argument. Using those insights that God gave Hammond and his wife, the author reports, has resulted in “countless people set free, delivered, and restored.” Through Heart Attachments, they share, “What we learned, how Jesus Christ transformed us, and how we’ve seen Him change the lives of others.”
Hammond identifies three “faculties” we possess as persons, spiritual, mental and emotional. These “come to knowledge differently, function uniquely, and have varying strengths and weaknesses,” he says. The goal is to engage each faculty so that they are “fully functioning in their proper boundaries.” This leads to “beautiful clarity, flow, and balance within us.” “Dysfunction exists,” he explains, “when a faculty is overused or underused.” He then takes the reader on a journey to explore each faculty in turn, showing from Scripture how dysfunction develops and how we may achieve a proper balance, neither under or overusing each faculty. The goal is to “Know [God] in a living and personal way,” in which we enjoy “an intimate, transforming relationship” with Him.
Focus on Emotion
One interesting note on Hammond’s view of human personality is his focus on the emotional faculty as primary. This contrasts with many contemporary schools of thought which emphasize primacy of the mental. “Generally speaking,” he says, “things start in the emotions and then move into our thinking.” Regarding how we know (what we know), Hammond says, “The mind knows through reason, the spirit through revelation, and the emotions through relationship.” I would add that the mind also knows through information. But his emphasis on the emotional life of persons needing relationship is a welcome relief from recent overemphasis on cognitive functions. He also deals at length with the crippling emotion of shame.
Heart Attachments: Case Studies
Hammond wisely includes case studies of people, alternating a chapter of instruction with a chapter devoted to the story of someone who illustrates the principles he previously explained. His stories may fail to grasp the reader, however, because they are related in the third person, and without dialogue. The subjects may well be real people and not someone devised as a literary device. This very question, however, reflects my doubt. The reader must experience the truth of our writing. We cannot simply tell readers our information.
Hammond’s Last Chapter: “Practical Considerations,” I loved. It was indeed practical and helpful to show how we can develop that personal, intimate, transforming relationship with God. That’s what we all say we desire. I would have appreciated those practical suggestions throughout, but the reader feels well rewarded for reading the book to the end.
Intellectually stimulating, Heart Attachments is useful for personal and group study. It enables the reader to explore a deeper experience of the Living God through Jesus Christ. The book focuses more on deepening our understanding of what that living relationship with God involves. What the reader now needs is to apply that understanding. We need to learn practical ways to apply the instruction of Heart Attachments to our personal lives. I believe small group sharing would facilitate this.
Heart Attachments is available through Amazon.com https://www.amazon.com/sk=heart+attachments+bruce+hammond&i=stripbooks&crid=SNXYX4W9M6G2&sprefix=Heart+Attachments%2Caps%2C458&ref=nb_sb_ss_organic-diversity_1_17
In my last blog, I told the story of Peter’s despair. But in the midst of that despair, however, Peter found hope. I want to share now how the happened, how Peter found hope in despair.
You recall how, in the process of the movers taking away his wife’s belongings after his divorce, Peter saved the hose to his sump pump. “I made a decision to keep the hose to a sump pump just in case,” Peter says. “It fitted the tailpipe and extended long enough to reach into a car window.” Prepared, Peter’s losses culminated in one particular night of despair. “Suicide became a real possibility,” he says. “I planned a dress rehearsal to see what suicide would be like—if I could do it. All I wanted was to end all the pain. I saw death as a welcome relief.” Continuing to live seemed a lost cause.
How Peter Found Hope in Despair
“I am really, really sorry, Pete.” Surprised, Peter first recognized the neighbor friend who had just opened his garage door. But then, when he saw the two police officers, one on her right, the other on her left, he worried. O Man, I’m going to spend the night in a seventy-two hour hold, he thought.
Although Peter reassured his unexpected visitors he was okay, he wasn’t and returned to his garage once more that evening. Nevertheless, after that dress rehearsal, he says, “I didn’t attempt it again. I decided not to stay in a dark place.” Although not immediately, Peter found his way from despair to hope.
What Peter Learned
In that friend’s intervention, Peter says, he saw “an incredible demonstration of love. She took that risk, and I told her and her husband how significant that was for me. She touched my heart.”
Peter’s story reminds us of the tenuous nature of life. Given the shattering of dreams, the successive losses we can experience, and the circumstances of life which we can’t control, we are all vulnerable to suicidal thoughts, or, as in Peter’s case, an attempt. No one is immune from feelings of despair, but Peter’s story of finding hope in despair also reminds us how important every relationship is, every loved one, every friend, and–every neighbor.
A Good Neighbor
Peter’s neighbor wasn’t just any old neighbor, someone you say “Hi” to and go on about your business. First of all, this neighbor was observant. She knew what was going on in Peter’s life: the divorce, the wife gone, the movers. Then, this woman also cared enough to call the cops. That’s risky. You could get yelled at, or lose a friend calling the police on them. Concerned and, finally, caring; rather, very concerned and very caring.
How observant, concerned, and caring are we? Afraid of being nosy, we often back off something that doesn’t look, feel, or seem right. We play it safe. But Peter’s story also reminds us of potential tragedies that lurk undetected every day. And it reminds us to Be A Good Neighbor. Better yet: God’s instrument to help someone we observe, are concerned, and care about find hope in despair.
[Source: From Chapter 4, Tragedy Transformed: How Job’s Recovery Can Provide Hope For Yours (2015). This book is available on this website and at Amazon.com. From April 15-May 15, 2020, I am offering a Giveaway on Goodreads.com Scroll down to 2nd image of book, click: Enter Giveaway.]
Who Owns My Life? – Peter
Pain and anguish tear at my heart, the only relief from this world to part. Knife at wrist, mind’s relief—it does send the thought of pain soon to an end.
These opening words of Peter’s poem express despair about his life. I share them because Peter’s story may at some point link with yours. In this time of world-wide pandemic from the coronavirus, especially as death statistics mount, businesses remain shuttered and normal social relationships are limited, you also may be tempted to despair. Here we’ll look at Peter’s despair. In a future blog, I’ll explain how Peter found hope in despair.
How Did Peter Arrive At Despair?
Setbacks piled up. Peter had dreamed he and his wife would teach together in a Christian ministry. But after his marriage ended, so did that dream. Another factor: “I never resolved my divorce,” he said. One reason for that failure—the church. “At that time,” he said, “churches didn’t know what to do with divorced people. I felt church people abandoned me. I determined never to be part of a church again.” As a result, Peter turned to drinking, partying, and having a good time. But after his second marriage also ended, “divorce devastated me,” Peter said.
“From childhood, my father taught me responsibility for myself and for my family. As a result, I worked hard to provide for and to protect my family.” He worked decades for a company with a recognizable brand name. He looked forward to a comfortable retirement. But after his second divorce, “I thought I would have to work the rest of my life,” he said. “I paid alimony. I no longer dreamed of retirement.” That divorce required division of his property. Forced to give up a home in suburbs, their vacation home on a lake, two motorcycles, and two luxury cars, Peter felt little hope. “The vacation home,” he said, “meant a place of retreat not only for my family, but also for important friends. With my divorce, I lost that. I lost friends, even one couple who had been in our wedding.” As losses to Peter mounted, he needed to find hope in despair.
Peter faced the loss of dreams of a comfortable retirement, possessions, and relationships. At first, he recommitted himself to his job with a six-figure salary. “I felt proud of providing my wife and family financial security,” he said. “But after divorce, my previous need to protect and provide meant nothing— a huge loss. The job didn’t matter.” Having to give up cars, houses, and dreams created “a lot of loss,” Peter said. But after the divorce, he also feared losing another important family relationship.
As movers removed his wife’s belongings, Peter says, “I made a decision to keep the hose to a sump pump just in case.” It fitted the tailpipe and extended long enough to reach into a car window. Prepared, Peter’s losses culminated in one particular night of despair. “Suicide became a real possibility,” he says “I planned a dress rehearsal to see what suicide would be like—if I could do it. I focused on ending all the pain. I saw death as a welcome relief.” But how will Peter find hope in despair?
Despair in Job
It sounds trite to say that we’re not the only one to face such a momentous, fearful, and life-threatening decision. For one thing , knowing others have faced similar struggles, however, and have come out the other side, can encourage us to hang on just a little longer. For another, our delay provides opportunity for longer-term help—and our survival. Faith didn’t protect several major Bible figures from despair, either, yet they survived temporary feelings of hopelessness to serve God and others. Although Elijah asks the Lord to take his life, and Jonah and Jeremiah ask to die, Job expresses the most intense, prolonged despair. His words in chapter 3 reveal someone who, like Peter, lost all hope.
Finding Hope In Despair
After the reports of devastation, Job remained steadfast in God’s defense—at first. “Shall we accept good from God and not evil?” he asked his wife in chapter 2. Stunned, unable to respond on an emotional level, initially Job clings to what he knows: he trusts God. Perhaps some painful experience has you stunned. You don’t know what to say, what to think, or how to feel, let alone what to do. So you hold on to what you already know. You stick with what you already believe. That helps hold you together—for now. Eventually, however, in a delayed response, as you begin to feel your distress more, like Job, an inner volcano rumbles. Soon, you may be unable to hold back. Like Peter and Job, we are all prone to despair.
With the aid of friends, time, and silence Job finally begins to feel his tragedies. In Job chapter 3, he erupts with a blast of red-hot verbal magma, the lava of despair. He speaks for many who’ve lost hope. What he says doesn’t sound pretty—or spiritual. He may speak for you.
From Chapter 4, Tragedy Transformed: How Job’s Recovery Can Provide Hope For Yours (2015). This book is available on this website and at Amazon.com.