Posted by: jmdenham | October 25, 2013

Empathy

This week I heard a powerful statement.

“Empathy is critical, but it doesn’t produce change.”

I am incredibly struck by this comment. I work in a job where the primary skill is empathic listening and the primary struggle is grief or sadness or anger. There are some things that don’t need to be changed but there are changes and effects that are good. But empathy doesn’t change things. It is the needed ground that change happens in. Without empathy, progress in relationships doesn’t happen. (Now, to be honest, conflict or traumas can force us to change a behavior but in terms of relationships empathy is required.)

I have hidden behind empathy as a person, as a chaplain, as a minister- if I can just empathize with people I don’t have to do much more. I mean, it’s something that I am very good at. I can listen with care and compassion to anyone about anything. I can listen as a fellow human being or fellow (step) parent or a fellow Christian or a fellow struggler in life- I can listen with great empathy……..but I can’t change people with just empathy. To be fair, I don’t do the changing myself but I do assist others in those changes. But even then, I can’t change a culture of blaming in a family with empathy. I can’t change a persons inability to live with pain or inability to take on responsibility. I can’t change someone’s fears or faith or perspectives or change their ability to care for their family. I can’t change any of it with just empathy. Empathy doesn’t keep families from falling apart, it doesn’t keep kids from dying, it doesn’t free adults from patterns of ineffective love towards one another. As a chaplain, this means I need to have a greater means of spiritual assessment, and be aware of the intervention and tools that I can use to help. Empathy doesn’t produce change but it is critical and needed.

Empathy is important- people need to be heard and understood and cared for. It is the soil for growth. You can’t move forward in the relationships without being heard. I love being empathetic and it means the world when someone is empathetic with me. But it doesn’t produce change, and I think I was being naive.

And it is the same way with my personal life. At times, I want to use empathy as the only thing I do and then hide behind it. If it produced change in and of itself, I would be changed in my conflict avoidance, in my fears, in my struggle to not be guilted.

I avoid conflict like the plague. I hate having conflict in my job, in my home life, in my family, in my church. I avoid it through hiding behind empathy and being good at it. Sometimes, I naively believe that I can empathy my way out of saying sorry. Or that I sometimes believe that I am not that boneheaded with others because I can empathize- I can pretend that I don’t make mistakes. Or I struggle with engaging with others because I am so good at empathy that I can do it without truly paying attention. I can hide behind it.

The reason I say this all is because I want more in life. I say this often, and in most of those cases it’s because I am greedy and I want more than just good or pretty good. I am so happy in life now, but I think it can be better. I want to be a better chaplain, better husband, better father, better churchgoer, better Christian. I want more because I hate settling. I want more because I think I can do more for others, and more importantly I can do more for myself when I can move past just listening, just empathizing, just hoping for better. God has gifted me with a lot of tools and gifted me with good resources. I feel called more than ever to use them, cause I have a lot of room to continue growing.

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