Deeply embedded in us is the need to protect ourselves. This biological fact is called “self-preservation,” and means that we are all instinctively wired to preserve ourselves from destruction, harm and death. This instinct is good, it keeps us safe throughout our childhood, but I wonder if it’s this deep compulsion that keeps empathy and compassion from coming naturally to us? To bend down, and get in someone else’s mess may mean an infringement on our need to avoid pain and suffering. Having pity for someone’s misfortune (Sympathy) comes much easier than putting yourself in their shoes (Empathy), and actually suffering alongside them (Compassion).
Remember the story of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25)? Let’s re-imagine that, and we will highlight what Sympathy, Empathy and Compassion might say to the man on the side of the road.
So a man was headed to Jericho and got mugged, beat up and was left naked to die. Luckily, a priest was walking by. But when he saw him, he jumped to the other side of the road. He saw, and avoided this man. Now PAUSE. Who doesn’t relate to this instinct? There is a naked man who has been beaten up. The robbers are at large. You don’t know the whole story of what went down. You might think, “Wow that’s crazy! I must have missed those thugs by just a few moments!”
Sympathy is a good start, but it often walks to the other side of the road and says, “I feel bad for you, but I’m just thankful it’s not me!”
Next, a Levite was walking by. He too saw the man, exposed and bloodied, and also avoided him by walking to the other side of the road. Let’s take some liberties in this story and imagine this Levite was a really good guy. As he departed from the victim he might have thought, “This is unspeakable. It’s horrible. I feel so bad for this man. I too have been beaten and shamed before. I know what it’s like… That poor man. I wish I could help but I can’t. I’m no doctor and I’m already running late. Maybe I can find someone in town.” Empathy shares deeply in the feeling of another’s suffering and pain. Empathy even understands the pain from personal experience. It is a vital component that moves us into compassion, but even at it’s best, empathy is a feeling, and still leaves the man in the ditch.
The third man walking by is a Samaritan. He saw the hurting man, and the bible says he “took pity on him, and went to him.” He took care of his wounds. He put him on his own donkey, and paid for his hotel to recover. This Samaritan put action to his feelings and was moved to compassion. Compassion didn’t stop with taking pity, or even understanding the man’s condition. Compassion caused the Samaritan to go directly to the broken and shamed man laying on the road. When others look away or walk to the other side of the road, compassion goes. Compassion sits, and stays. If sympathy sees the need and empathy feels the need – it is compassion that touches that need. It looks the bloody and naked need in the eyes, and stays. Compassion lays oneself down for the needs of another. Even if it costs us. God-driven compassion will not stop at merely seeing the feelings of other, or even relating to those feelings. When God’s deep love for all of his children is activated in our hearts, we are compelled to live like Jesus. To see a need, and to act.
As you, through your 30 Days of Heartwork, cultivate new responses to suffering in our world, we encourage you to think about the differences between the voices of sympathy, empathy and compassion. As you eat beans and rice and sleep on the floor, we encourage you to let go of that safe voice of self-preservation that often says, “Well, I’m just so thankful I don’t have to do THIS every day.” When our interactions with the needs of others leave us saying, “I just realized how truly blessed I am to have the comforts and possessions that I have,” is there a chance we are actually missing the real point? The end goal of the Heartwork Empathy Challenges is to cultivate true compassion, to become familiar with others’ suffering to the point of being able to relate (Empathy) and then co-suffer along with others who are hurting (Compassion).
The mission of Jesus on this Earth was to rebuild, restore, bring healing and bind up the brokenhearted (Isaiah 61). He actively brought himself into the pain, shame, brokenness and discomfort of humankind. He shared in the suffering of his family, friends and followers, and brought solutions to their physical, mental, emotional and spiritual problems.
How do you see yourself responding to the hurts of others? Do you politely nod your head and breathe a sigh of relief as you walk away thinking, “I’m just grateful it’s not me”? Or do you, in compassion, see the need, feel the discomfort, sit with others and stay even if it hurts?
*At Heartwork we realize there are factors in our modern culture that can make this complicated. The first-century Samaritan probably didn’t read the news about nine different worldwide tragedies all before 9am. There are healthy boundaries to cultivate alongside our compassion, both in our relationships and in our response to suffering. But our encouragement is to take the steps toward a Christ-like way of living as it relates to pain. Not numbing-out with our own privilege, but being led by the Holy Spirit to see and bring our own pain and the pain of others, not onto our own shoulders, but to our great God.