New Ark United Church of Christ, Newark, DE
February 4, 2018
Have you ever been to a physician’s office, looked impatiently at the time while waiting in the examining room, only to have the doctor enter with these words: “Sorry you had to wait so long, busy day.” As it is, Jesus comes across like a doctor on the run in the gospel of Mark, moving along from the synagogue to the house of Simon and Andrew, teaching and healing as he goes, often preceded by the word “immediately”. Jesus tries to slow down a bit by going to a secluded place to pray and meditate. Even with all the technology we have to make the practice of medicine more accurate, efficient, and expedient, nothing can replace or duplicate the human element of compassion multiplied by the factor of time. When caregivers take time to listen and understand, we feel as though we have been seen, our concerns have been heard, and we know we are valued. We experience empathy.
|J. Kirk Richards, 2011, Healing All Manner of Sickness|
I’m not sure if healing occurs without empathy—deep down-in-your-bones healing. Sympathy is suffering alongside. Empathy is entering into the suffering of another. One cannot be entirely removed from the healing of those in their care; we can’t heal at an emotional, spiritual distance from one another. Compassion, courage, and self-gift are communicated through presence, touch, kind words, companionable silence; the look in our eyes; how we listen and pay attention to things like body language; how we respond to the suffering of others.
Kirk, Spock, and McCoy encounter an empath on a planet whose sun is about to go nova. They’ve beamed down to the surface to rescue two Federation researchers who have literally disappeared without a trace. The three are also taken in the same way and find themselves in a laboratory situation: two humanoid beings from a technologically advanced species are testing the empathic woman to see if her species deserves to be rescued from the destruction of the supernova. They torture Kirk and McCoy in order to provoke her ability to not only sense emotions but to heal others by absorbing their pain and injury into her own body. Up until now, she has allowed her instinct for self-preservation to outweigh any thought of self-sacrifice. But as she interacts with these three friends, she assimilates their qualities of courage, sacrifice, and deep compassion.
When Jesus heals Simon’s mother-in-law, she immediately begins to serve. She imitates Jesus through service, by offering herself. The healer needs healing too. Jesus finds a quiet corner to recharge, but the disciples are overwhelmed by the needs of the crowds and they search him out. Jesus too struggled with self-preservation and self-sacrifice and the courage, the energy it takes to enter into the suffering of others.
To enter into the suffering of another, to have empathy, requires that we acknowledge and draw power from our own suffering, our own fears, our own wounds. We need to be an empath with our own story. To enter into the suffering of another is to enter the fullness of our shared humanity. This is why the idea of an incarnational God, a God who enters into our humanity, is so powerful. From the UCC Statement of Faith: “In Jesus Christ, the man of Nazareth, our crucified and risen savior, you have come to us and shared our common lot, conquering sin and death, and reconciling the world to yourself.” Compassion and courage lead to empathy; empathy leads to forgiveness, redemption, justice, freedom, a transformed life.
How empathic are you?
Find out by taking this empathy quotient inventory.