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Thursday, December 30, 2004

On Empathy

In an extended passage in Romans (12:3 to 14:13), a passage that is filled with instructions on what spiritual transformation looks like, Paul teaches that Christians are to demonstrate love quintessentially in every aspect of life.

One way a Christian's love is shown to his neighbor is by compassion and empathy:

Rejoice with those who rejoice; mourn with those who mourn. (12: 15)

I used to think that this injunction only applies to having empathy for others in the body of Christ. While that is taught in another passage of Scripture (1 Cor. 12), I believe here in Romans, Paul's teaching here is much more inclusive than I had thought. The context shows that he is describing our behavior before the world. In the previous verse, he exhorts Christians to "bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse." Although the next verse tells us to "live in harmony with one another" (does it merely mean living in harmony within the Christian community?), the following verses address our attitudes and behavior towards everybody, within or without the faith community: humility, meekness, acceptance, endurance and peaceable, etc.

So, Paul appears to suggest that empathy is characteristic of the transformed life. We are to rejoice with others when they rejoice and also to mourn with them when they mourn. In other words, rather than focus on our own emotional response we need to feel what it is like to be the other person. In that spirit, the Malaysian government has really demonstrated genuine care, compassion and love. Messy Christian reports that
they have cancelled New Year's celebrations in compassionate empathy with those who have suffered so much in the tragic event the full horror of which is still unfolding by the minute. It is awesome for an entire nation's government to show such enthusiastic embrace of the suffering community. Imagine that they cancel the dropping of the ball at Time's Square! Unimaginable, right?

In contrast, here is a conversation I had with my colleague, whose wife is from Thailand, earlier today:

TheBloke (TB): "This must have been the worst tragedy to hit the world in recent times."

Husband of Thai Wife (HTW): "Yes, it has already surpassed twice the number of Americans who perished during the Vietnam War."

TB: "Wow"

"I am just glad that my wife's relatives were not among those who died."

TB: (after a pause): "You mean you were relieved that they did not die."

HTW: "No, I am glad! I am not glad for those who died. I am glad my wife's relatives did not die."

TB: (silence - trying to process the difference).

HTW, (continuing): "I am glad that my wife didn't have to go back to Thailand to attend any funerals or anything. That would suck, because we are suppose to go to Florida for our vacation next week. If she had to go then, it would be bad. That's why I am glad!"

TB: (dumbfounded)...

Now, I can understand my colleague's sentiments and I really don't blame him. It would really suck for me too if I was looking forward to a family vacation, and at the last minute my wife had to be somewhere else. Yet, I am much troubled by the underlining feelings and thinking patterns that produces such self-centered responses. I remember feeling similar mixed feelings at a Church fellowship meeting many, many years ago. Someone had just described a horrific highway accident in which both parents in the family were killed. A woman shared that she and her husband were supposed to travel on that same highway at about the same time that very day but their trip was delayed for some reason. We were saddened by the news of the unfortunate children who were left orphans as a result of the tragedy.

"Thank God that that wasn't us!" she quipped.

I remember feeling very uneasy by her response, and the "Amens" that echoed around the group. When something tragic happens and we have escaped it, or when that event does not directly impact anyone close to us, the reflex response almost always is gratefulness and thankfulness. However, somehow I am queasy that we should express it that way, and I have been feeling this way for a long time.

I think one reason why we respond the way we do to tragedy (or to having escaped one, however remote the "escape" is construed), is because of our false assumptions. We need to come to terms with what kind world we live in. This is a fallen, imperfect, broken and damaged world. It is a world in which accidents, disasters, pain and suffering are rampant. When we only express thankfulness when we have escaped a tragedy, it seems that we are responding to the unspoken assumption that we live in an almost perfect world that is marred by the occasional accident. In fact, the opposite is true. Rather than be surprised by tragedy we need to be surprised by joy, and be thankful each day of our lives when we have another pain-free, trouble-free day.

Another false assumption that we might carry with us is that the world, and indeed God, owe us a problem-free existence. We get annoyed at trouble and pain. We say it is unfair that we have been stricken. We cry, we whine, we bring our complaints to God's doorsteps, shake our fists and say, "Fix this, and I mean Now!" We fail to see that this whole mess belongs to us from the start. Back in the garden of Eden when the First Adam sinned, he broke the perfection that was created by God, and the repercussions and chain reactions has affected all of creation. Which is why Paul says, all creation has been groaning (Romans 8:22) in expectant emancipation when the new world is recreated at the Resurrection.

Meanwhile, our job in this world, is in part, to reclaim the Eden that was lost. In order to do that we must first restore our broken relationship with God. Perhaps, that is why the Apostle Paul says that we need to present ourselves as living sacrifices, so that our minds might be renewed, and our lives might be transformed. As living sacrifices, our own safety and comfort would not be more important to us than the safety and comfort of the people around us. We will then be free to empathize with them and to be moved to respond in positive action to help alleviate the pain and suffering around us. Our "empathy meters" will be more sensitive than our "thankful-that-I-wasn't-the-unfortunate-soul meters".

I am not saying that it is wrong to be thankful when we escape danger. It is arguably a normal human response, but I am saying we need to balance that response with a more empathic and a more inclusive thinking. We need to realize that we all are fellow sojourners in this dangerous world of ours and we are part of one community. Perhaps what is needed is a thorough spiritual renewal and transformation where we are finally able to respond empathetically so that our self-centered thankfulness for having escaped is insignificant compared to the shared grief we have for those who suffer.

As Christians, we may not be "of the world" but we are still "in the world" and Paul in the Romans passage is admonishing us to be identified with our fellow human beings, to share with them, to live in peace with them, and to love them. As we do that, we will be able to demonstrate what it means to worship God (verse 2), and we will realize what it means to be transformed by the renewal of our minds. And, as we dedicate ourselves to that task, we can be assured and hopeful that He is working alongside us to accomplish this. As I often say, He is indeed a great, merciful and gracious God.

NOTE: In previous posts, I have provided links to how you might help with the situation in Asia. Please go
here and here.

UPDATE: Australians will pause for a minute's silence admist the upcoming New Year's celebrations.