empathy

Thoughts by the Sea

Image via idreamphoto/shutterstock.com

Image via idreamphoto/shutterstock.com

One question I would ask a blue whale, if I could summon it from the depths of the ocean, would be, "Is it your giant heart that makes your kind the most peaceful and intelligent creatures on Earth?"

I often wonder about the link between the heart and kindness and intelligence. "Cogit ergo sum (I think therefore I am)," wrote René Descartes, and we live in a time where the sum of all of life is the mind, the value of all of life is the ability to be right and to be smarter than anyone else.

But what of "sentimus ergo sumus (we feel therefore we are)?” Is the sum of all of life really empathy, the practice of placing ourselves in the shoes of fellow human beings and walking around in those shoes until we can feel life as they feel it?

"If we value the growth of our hearts most of all, could we be more like you?," I would ask my giant, gentle friend.

 

Can You Imagine Injustice?

Imagine injustice. Image via Mopic/shutterstock.com

Imagine injustice. Image via Mopic/shutterstock.com

For people benefitting from systematic wealth, power, comfort, favor, and convenience, it can be difficult to relate to the constant and endless forms of racism, stereotyping, and injustice that are experienced by others.

The privileged don’t experience the daily realities faced by the likes of Walter Scott, Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, Eric Garner, and millions of others who have lived under completely different — and radically unfavorable — circumstances.

This is why Christians — no matter what your background — must passionately engage in such things as relationship-building, participating in dialogue, and actively reading, experiencing, and listening to various perspectives. Because doing this informs, directs, and edifies one of the most powerful spiritual tools we have: our imagination.

Imagination is defined as the faculty of imagining or of forming mental images or concepts of what is not actually present to the senses.

Friendships, personal accounts, testimonies, books, footage, stories, and experiences empower us to have a better picture, perspective, and understanding of others. Even if we don’t personally struggle with the same types of injustice and inequality that others do, we’re at least given the ability to imagine its reality, accept its existence, empathize with its victims, and comprehend truths we weren’t previously aware of.

In the Bible, Jesus is constantly challenging the status quo and striving for justice, peace, and reconciliation against cultural factors and precedents that seem impossibleto overcome. For the individuals God calls upon, they are required to imagine the inconceivable, accept the unthinkable, and break out of their stubborn paradigms in order to embrace the Divine.

Imagine the sea being parted, walking on water, feeding the 5,000, being healed of leprosy, encountering a talking donkey and a talking (burning) bush, and rising from the dead.

Can The Privileged Imagine Injustice?

A hand holding a remote casts a shadow of a hand holding a gun. Image courtesy O

A hand holding a remote casts a shadow of a hand holding a gun. Image courtesy Oliver Hoffmann/shutterstock.com

Imagination is defined as, "The faculty of imagining or of forming mental images or concepts of what is not actually present to the senses."

For privileged Christians who have lived the majority of their lives receiving the benefits of systematic wealth, power, comfort, favor, and convenience, it can be almost impossible to conceive of a world where injustice, inequality, and perpetual oppression are daily struggles.

Many privileged believers experience an entire existence completely devoid of the suffering, trials, and endless forms of racism, stereotyping, and injustice that are the daily realities faced by the likes of Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, Eric Garner, and millions of others who have lived under completely different — and radically unfavorable — circumstances.

Thus when parties from both sides try to communicate with one another, it is extremely difficult, frustrating, and nearly impossible to even begin to comprehend each other’s worlds — unless you utilize the spiritual discipline of imagination.

In the Bible, Jesus is constantly challenging the status quo and striving for justice, peace, and reconciliation against cultural factors and precedents that seem impossible to overcome. For the human vessels that God calls upon, they are required to imagine the inconceivable, accept the unthinkable, and break out of their stubborn paradigms in order to embrace the Divine.

When Christians Lack Imagination, They Lack Love

Jung Hsuan / Shutterstock.com

Jung Hsuan / Shutterstock.com

Christians often talk about actively changing the world, but too often, we just sit still and passively watch the struggles of others without participating, leading, or caring. We don’t love.

Why? Because many Christians have an inability to use their imaginations.

People who can’t imagine are susceptible to bigotry, racism, hatred, and violence toward others. Why? Because they can’t imagine any other scenario, perspective, or opinion other than their own. They have an inability to see themselves in someone else’s shoes. They can’t see beyond their own narrow reality.

When you can’t imagine, you can’t empathize, understand, or relate with the actions, struggles, pain, suffering, persecution, and trials of others — you become apathetic, unmoved, stoic, and inactive.

Whether our differences are gender-related, age-related, race-related, culturally related, politically related, economically related, socially related, theologically related, value-related, or related to any countless number of factors, overcoming them requires imagination.

When you can’t imagine, you can’t celebrate, appreciate, admire, and joyfully love others. You disconnect yourself from humanity.

A Whale of a Lesson

TsuneoMP / Shutterstock

Blue whale's can have hearts as big as Volkswagen Beetles. TsuneoMP / Shutterstock

I created my SOLE space by providing one desktop computer per four students, a whiteboard to write questions on, and paper and pens for students to take notes for their sharing at the end of SOLE.

Then I asked a big question — “Why does a blue whale have such an enormous heart?” — and I let the adventure begin. My students began their investigations.

After 40 minutes, they shared their discoveries.

“Blue whales swim all over the world,” said Ki’ara, “So they need a gargantuan heart to be their motor.”

“Blue whales can call to each other over almost a thousand miles,” said Heavenly. “They need a big heart to talk to each other.”

“They swim together in pairs,” said Amare, “So they need huge hearts to care for each other.”

“Yeah,” said Isaac, “That’s true … it takes a huge heart to care for somebody.”

“Kids who are nice to me on the playground must have a big heart like a blue whale,” added Aydan. “And people who are mean must have small hearts.”

“Hmmm,” I said. “How can we have big hearts for each other instead of small hearts?”

How Feeling Each Other’s Pain Changes Everything

Antique statues, neko92vl / Shutterstock.com

Antique statues, neko92vl / Shutterstock.com

Strange but beautiful things happen when we begin to identify with people who are culturally different. A few years ago, I became friends with Peter, a guy at my church who also happened to be an undocumented immigrant. One day over lunch, he shared that his mother (whom he hadn’t seen in 15+ years) had recently been diagnosed with a terminal disease. He desperately wanted to visit her, but due to his immigration status, he knew that if he left the U.S. he wouldn’t be allowed to return. Given his obligations to his family in the U.S., Peter made the heart-breaking decision to not to visit his dying mom.

As a U.S. citizen, I hadn’t personally experienced the trials of being undocumented or felt the frustration of geographic immobility while a loved one approached death in a far off land. But throughout my friendship with Peter — getting to know his family in the U.S., listening to him share about the harrowing challenges he experienced on a daily basis, and seeing photographs of his life and family in his home country — I got a glimpse of the world from his perspective. In many ways, Peter’s life was marked by sorrow and loss – and that was more evident than ever during our lunch conversation that day.

The Shameful Politics of Scorn

An impoverished young man man on a bench. Photo courtesy Dariush M/shutterstock.

An impoverished young man man on a bench. Photo courtesy Dariush M/shutterstock.com

I got a glimpse into the politics of scorn this week.

The visual was a photo accompanying a New York Times article on rental properties in Memphis, Tenn. The article itself seemed innocuous, about how foreclosed homes are being scooped up by outside investors and turned into rentals.

The photo, however, was troubling. It showed a young man lazing in a large chair while his two children stared numbly at a television screen and his wife tapped away on a cell phone.

I have no clue into this family’s character. But the visual screamed: “Idle! Lazy!”

On Scripture: Good Samaritans All Around

Mosaic of the Good Samaritan. Photo courtesy Renata Sedmakova/shutterstock.com

In recent weeks, a number of controversial and divisive political questions have dominated the news. Race and voting rights, abortion in Texas, and marriage equality at the Supreme Court have opened anew the scars of old political and cultural wars. 

In this conflicted political ambit, the Samaritan's bold compassion is a needed reminder today. Let’s remember to be kind to the stranger, certainly. But just as important is that the story of the Good Samaritan also invites us to imagine ourselves in a different part of this narrative.

Imagine yourself not as the Samaritan seeking to love God and neighbor. Imagine yourself as the person in need. A man on the brink of death. A woman in deepest grief. A man lost in the world. A woman with no hope. Imagine yourself at your most vulnerable, deep in despair with only one hope: perhaps someone will help me.

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