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Holy Everything: You can't stress empathy enough

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Consider the last time you whole-heartedly listened to another person. An occasion when someone else was speaking about a life happening and you listened with genuine attentiveness.

Perhaps your friend was talking about a challenging work dynamic — or your daughter was celebrating a family milestone. As you listened, did you perceive the other person felt heard? Accepted? Understood?

If so, you were expressing empathy — one of the building blocks of a healthy world. Nice job! Empathy is your ability to sense the emotions of others and imagine they may be thinking and feeling.

Now consider the last time you felt anxious, stressed, or uncertain. Perhaps you have to search the depths of your memory bank for such a time, but more than likely there is something that happened in the past week that caused these sorts of feelings. Were you running late for an important meeting or your son's football practice (anxiety)? Are there dynamics among your work team or family that are leading to tension (stress)? Maybe you're currently waiting for some medical test results (uncertainty).

This past week I read about the results of a new study completed by researchers at Harvard and Colombia. They discovered that in general, people are unable to feel stress and empathy at the same time. So when we're feeling stressed out, the part of our brain that allows us to "step into someone else's shoes" stops working. Instead, when we're anxious, we get totally consumed by our own reality.

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It makes sense, right? When I think back on times when I have felt anxious, stressed, and uncertain, I'd say I become pretty self-consumed! The last thing on my mind at those points is a desire to try and imagine the world from someone else's perspective. As my anxiety goes up, my empathy goes down.

This empathy/anxiety correlation has huge implications for our lives of faith and our relationships! Without empathy, we are unable to imagine what life is like for other people. Our ability for compassion is decreased. Our likelihood of decreasing conflict and problem solving is also diminished. Empathy is a big deal. It requires letting go of defensiveness and criticism so we can enter into someone else's story.

So how do we get rid of our empathy roadblocks? How can we manage the seemingly ever-present anxieties, stresses, and uncertainties of life? There is no perfect, one-size-fits-all recipe, but there are a host of helpful ingredients for you to create your own recipe! Meditation. Prayer. Long walks. Exercise. Deep breathing. Yoga. All can be helpful tools.

In the New Testament, Jesus is the embodiment of empathy. He regularly encounters people and extends compassion and healing to them. In order to do so, he listens to their stories and imagines their experiences. He steps into their shoes by entering into the real, lived experiences of the outcast, the poor, the rich, and the sick. Regardless of his circumstances, Jesus found ways to manage his stress so he could continue to be a empathetic presence in the world.

We have daily opportunities to do the same. To manage our own stress in a way that enables us to deeply listen and seek to understand other people. It isn't easy. Sometimes it isn't even possible. But a lot of the time, it is possible. It just takes practice.

The following is a portion of a prayer by Rita Snowden. She was a Methodist writer in New Zealand, and lived from 1907 to 1999. This prayer is a great encouragement to see the world through an empathetic lens.

"God, take the experience that life has given me, and use it; keep my eyes open, and my imagination alert, that I may see how things look to others, especially the unwell, the worried, and the overworked."

Amen.

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