Stand in My Shoes, Developing Empathy

 

by Reverend Lana Charlton

Gandhi wrote, “Three quarters of the miseries and misunderstandings in the world would finish if people were to put on the shoes of their adversaries and understood their points of view.”

In the 70’s, one of my best friends died of AIDS. Not much was known about AIDS at that time except people were scared. Visiting Norm in the hospital, I had to put on a mask and gloves and be “very careful” per the nurse. Norm had been one of my great teachers and I loved him deeply as a friend.

 

AIDS was the curse of homosexuals, some religious leaders suggested, until people of all races, creeds, and lifestyles that had blood transfusions began to get it. Suddenly, it was different. A young hemophiliac child came down with it as did people from all walks of life. People found their brothers, sisters, children, and friends close to home had AIDS due to blood transfusions. Surely, they were not cursed. We began to have empathy because it was at our doorstep.

People who have grown up feeling different often know the power of empathy. My high school had over 3,000 people in it. Ironically, I seemed to be the only one with an alcoholic mother due to her acting out. What percentage of people had alcoholic parents in that population? Because of that, to some degree, I have been able to see through the lenses of others because I felt so terminally unique. What a relief it was to know that many people had been through my experience. Books on adult children of alcoholics became prevalent in the 70s and 80s. Groups formed and people found the empathy, not sympathy, but deeper understanding. We were not so terminally unique.

The lens of perception is so unique and powerful. We all know we don’t see things the same way. People raised in the same family, the same dynamics, often tell different stories. Why? We all see through the lens of our unique individual soul’s experience. Some soldiers come back from war and easily get on with their lives. Others struggle with PTSD so much so that they think of taking their own lives. We are all different and experience life differently. Why don’t we understand this when we judge ourselves or others?

“Your perceptions of others reveal so much about your own personality,” says Dustin Wood, assistant professor of psychology at Wake Forest University. By asking study participants to each rate positive and negative characteristics of just three people, the researchers were able to find out important information about the raters’ well-being, mental health, social attitudes and how they were judged by others. (Science Daily, Aug, 2010)

In Romans 7:15 Paul suggests, “I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate.” He follows this scripture with the reason for this, (vs.17b) “but sin which dwells within me.” What a powerful, shame-filled word, sin. Yet, once again, sin has many definitions biblically. Sin in Greek meant nothing more than missing the mark. I miss the mark a lot in my life. I also do not always understand my own actions. If I miss the mark, if I do what I don’t really want to do, how can I not have empathy for another?

Sympathy is different than empathy. Sympathy is at least a beginning for some people. But sympathy is still standing apart and from. Empathy doesn’t require that you walk in my shoes, but it strongly suggests you had somewhat of a shared experience. You don’t have to be an alcoholic to understand over indulgence. 

“Before you criticize someone, you should walk a mile in their shoes. That way when you criticize them, you are a mile away from them and you have their shoes.” This may be silly, but the next time you start to judge someone, ask yourself, could I go up and say that to their face? Did I understand what was said or going on? Does it make me feel superior or even inferior when I judge another? Is there something I can learn in my judgment about myself?

There is an old saying in recovery groups, “If you spot it, you’ve got it.” What have you been spotting in others lately? Is there some empathetic learning that needs to be applied to yourself?

“For with the judgment you pronounce you will be judged, and the measure you give will be the measurement you get.” (Mt: 7-2)

Blessings of Love and Light.

 

Reverend Lana Charlton is the senior minister at Unity Gateway Church, Coral Springs, and writes for numerous worldwide, national, and local publications. See ad page 45.

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