I’m in a position of leadership in a classroom and in a church. In both of those areas, I get to know people pretty well, and I see how they interact as peers. And I’ve been surprised to see the same basic human drama in each. Whether it’s school or church, everybody is trying to find a little slice of joy while struggling with their trials in life, and keeping up a brave front for public show. Truly, the same human drama exists in every community.
Those efforts at a brave front may have more to do with not wanting to derail the smooth machinery of the community’s activities by drawing undue attention than it does with embarrassment or pride, but it is sadly counterproductive in at least one way: our stoic repression of the heartaches we’re dealing with puts up a wall and stagnates our connection to others. I’ve seen too much hurt and misunderstanding caused by it.
People try to go about their daily lives, doing their jobs and doing things with their friends, often very unaware of just what these friends are suffering through. The hidden stress that we all keep inside often keeps us too focused on ourselves, unable to reach out to others, and constricted in our ability to express real charity.
Not that I’m suggesting that we all have more weepy pity parties. One Breakfast Club was enough, thank you.
What we seem to need even more of between the people in our schools, our churches, and indeed in every community–our families, our workplaces, our neighborhoods–is empathy. People don’t need to wear their personal tragedies on their sleeves, but I wish we could all do more to consider what others are going through before we decide what we think of them, argue with them, or even try to understand them at all. What weird form of cabin fever is it from living and working close together with people that often makes us more insensitive to them?
I’ve often thought about how very different the relationships between my students at school and my friends at church would be if everybody actually knew everybody else’s private hopes and griefs the way I have to. Of course, that isn’t really necessary. The burden for connecting positively isn’t on us to show ourselves to others, it’s on us to accept others even when we don’t know what’s going on inside. We should be able to understand that they do have trials, stress, secrets, and some crushed dreams, even if we don’t know the details.
We know mentally that everybody has adversity and even tragedy at times in life, but does this knowledge show itself when we bump into each other? Do we seek each other out with this in mind? When we’re tempted to be confused, irritated, upset, or offended, do we give others the benefit of the doubt? That may be the most basic element of empathy and charity that our society has lost–we often seem so willing to assume the worst about others and keep wrapped up in our own troubles, completely oblivious that the person right next to us is also suffering, maybe with something that’s even worse than what we’re going through.
We just don’t walk in each other’s shoes any more. We have the innovation to split the atom and walk on the moon, the imagination to create virtual worlds and explore them, but not the compassion to realize the depths of every heart around us and see it as just as needy and hurting as our own.
I wonder if this is the failing Jesus Christ had in mind when he prophesied that “the love of many shall wax cold.” (Matthew 24:12)
We shouldn’t need to know people’s dirty laundry before we stop putting ourselves on one side or another of conflicts with them. We should be more like Jesus and not treat people harshly because it’s convenient or natural. Such instincts rarely serve us well.
Jesus called Matthew, a hated tax collector, to be an Apostle (Mark 2:14). Jesus accepted Zaccheus even when others scorned him (Luke 19:1-9). It would have been easy for Jesus to accept what others saw on the surface of these men and likewise ignore or scorn them, but Jesus saw them for who they were inside. I don’t think he needed his miraculous power for that, though–he only needed his knowledge of everybody’s humanity and spiritual kinship…knowledge that we all have. He didn’t exercise divine authority to reach out to others, he only exercised empathy.
“But how can I be understanding of the pain and needs of others when I’m going through such a hard time myself?” we ask. On the cross, in the extremity of personal suffering, Jesus still made it a prioirity to make sure his mother was cared for (John 19:25-27) and to comfort the kind thief hanging next to him (Luke 23:39-43).
In the ultimate example of empathy, of giving others the benefit of the doubt, Jesus prayed for the soldiers who crucified him: “Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do.” (Luke 23:34) Yes, we are also called to show loving understanding for all others, even when they’re hurting us in their emotional blindness, even when they don’t understand themselves.
I want to do better at this. I hope we all do. To the degree that we follow the Savior’s example in this, we will find the happiness and peace that eludes us as we continue to crash into each other because we’re busy wiping tears from our own eyes.