The following thoughts bubbled up this week while I read eyewitness accounts from, news reports about, and opinion pieces on Ferguson, MO. Said thoughts have been simmering for many years, however, through many tragedies and conflicts, both domestic and international. I hope to continue this theme, with a trajectory toward active Kingdom-building, for the rest of my life.
I don’t like it. I don’t like confrontation. I don’t like it when things go wrong. I don’t like it when other people are at odds. I don’t like hashtag wars. I don’t like it when I can’t fix things. Somewhere inside me, a petulant, inconvenienced child complains that the yelling is too loud, puts her fingers in her ears and sings loudly, “LALALALALA!!”
I refuse to be that child anymore. I refuse to let my discomfort with the hashtag war govern my response (or lack thereof) to real wars, real tragedies, real shouting matches, real injustices, real problems with endless complexities.
To stop being that ineffectual child, I have to shut up. I have to listen. I have to open my ears, shut my mouth, and listen. I have to resist spouting reflexive rhetoric. I have to be quiet and let the stinging darts of another person’s story sink into the flesh of my pride and self-righteousness until it starts to bleed empathy. I have to accept the notion that there are worse things than my preconceived notions being proven wrong. I have to allow myself to feel empathy.
Denying empathy is dangerous. To hide behind a bastion of preconceived ideas and entrenched opinions dehumanizes the person whose story I’m hiding from, and it also dehumanizes me. I wonder if one of the reasons I cling to my habitual ways of seeing and opining on things is that I feel my personal epistemology/way of knowing is somehow essential to my identity.
News flash: it’s not.
I am more than a set of opinions and rock-solid beliefs about what the world is and how people are. I am a person. I am a bearer of God’s image. I am capable of listening to this other person, also a bearer of God’s image, whose story I do not know in its entirety. This other person is more than a news headline, more than a participant in a protest, more than a victim of ongoing conflict, more than a statistic, more than someone that I am suspicious of because of those pesky non-essential parts of me.
This person is a human. I am a human. I want to learn, fellow human, what being a human is like for you. And I promise to listen without jumping in to shut you up with an untimely story of what it’s like for me to be a human.
Setting aside my armor of political opinions, ingrained biases, desires for validation and justification, and discomfort at the possibility of being in the wrong in order to hear a fellow human being’s story will not make me any less a seeker and lover of the truth or any less a follower of God. Quite the opposite, in fact.
Empathy is the beginning point of compassion. Compassion is the beginning point of justice. Com – together, pati – to suffer. Compassion means to suffer with. A compassionate Lord compels me to be compassionate. Compassion is the very opposite of condescension and narrative imperialism. It doesn’t mean casting a benevolent eye on a suffering soul and heroically reaching down to pluck said soul from the depths of hardship.
It means saying, “No, I don’t know what it’s like to be you. Tell me. Show me. I want to know.”
Unlike many of my (much bolder) friends, I don’t know when or if I will ever become an activist in the traditional sense. I do know that when crises arise in this broken world, I will start listening. Will you join me?
For slightly more helpful reading on empathy, listening, and hope, I recommend the following: