Of Empathy and Experience

Sometimes empathy is as easy as glancing over at someone else’s situation. A house destroyed by a tornado, a car wreck, a tragedy of some sort or another. In such cases it doesn’t take an awful lot of putting yourself in someone else’s shoes to know you wouldn’t like the fit. Even a comfy pair of loafers don’t feel all that great once they catch on fire. “Sure wouldn’t want to be wearing those,” we think and understand that this is no time for judging the person who is wearing them. Instead, we respond with care and compassion.

Sometimes, it’s not so easy. A crying baby on a late flight, an impatient driver, an annoyance of some sort or another. In such cases it’s pretty easy to focus on our inconvenience and someone else’s need for improved ability, better attitude or greater consideration. “I sure never let my kids act like that!” we mutter under our breath or perhaps over it given sufficient distance or disregard. In such cases, it takes a deliberate effort to move from aggravation to consideration. “Poor things, I bet the whole family is worn out. Been there, done that.”

There’s something fine and friendly in the wonderful phenomenon of deliberately putting ourselves in someone else’s place and taking a look at things from their perspective. Something that moves us to greater understanding and insight. Something that helps us move from judging to sojourning. It is a thoughtful and gentle practice, a very Christ-like notion.

Whether easy or not, it is a good thing. What is shameful to me is when I do not gain that other perspective until life has actually placed me in someone else’s place.

I was very judgmental toward divorced people until I went through divorce and had former friends and brethren refuse to speak with me or shake my hand afterwards. I was very judgmental toward the poor and unemployed until I found myself unable to license my car in Ohio because I didn’t have insurance on it. I was very judgmental toward people who weren’t like me until I lived in a place where the majority of people weren’t like me.

Most recently, I have come to realize how utterly non-empathetic I was toward my own father when he was losing his hearing. Whether trying to carry on a conversation with him on the phone or in person, it became so frustrating that I eventually gave up. I quit calling. Instead of thinking about his frustration and isolation, I focused on my annoyance. I resented his intrusions into and interruptions of attempted conversations with others without thinking that when you can’t hear, it’s easy to not realize someone else is already talking with someone else.

He was a man who truly valued conversation, who loved visiting with people, loved sharing jokes and making quips. A man who loved communication. It was not until I began experiencing the isolation, frustration and loneliness myself that it even occurred to me that he might have gone through the same things. I wish I had shown him more patience.

Even though I sometimes still have difficulty clearly catching all of what some people are saying, the hearing aids have definitely helped. But it may be that the greatest gains are in the way of humility and empathy. To those who are open to the possibility, life has its way of bringing such opportunities to us.

I try to remind myself that in seeking to follow The Carpenter, I should not have to wait for the strike of the hammer before I consider the perspective of the nail.

H. Arnett

About Doc Arnett

Native of southwestern Kentucky currently living in Ark City, Kansas, with my wife of twenty-nine years, Randa. We have, between us, eight children and twenty-eight grandkids. We enjoy singing, worship, remodeling and travel.
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