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The Value of Empathy

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Empathy is a rare commodity, but needed more than ever.

Recently, a story has been circulating newsrooms across the country. The family of Sgt. La David T. Johnson, one of four soldiers killed in an ambush in Niger, felt disrespected when President Donald Trump said to the grieving widow that the soldier “knew what he signed up for.” (Source: https://www.nytimes.com/2017/10/18/us/politics/trump-widow-johnson-call.html) Whether you take this exchange as valid or believe it is “fake news”, the sentiments reportedly expressed raises questions about how we value empathy in today’s culture and society.

According to Merriam-Webster, the definition of empathy is:

the action of understanding, being aware of, being sensitive to, and vicariously experiencing the feelings, thoughts, and experience of another of either the past or present without having the feelings, thoughts, and experience fully communicated in an objectively explicit manner. (Source: https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/empathy)

You may not have experienced a specific tragedy or disappointment. You may not have endured another’s pain. Yet, when you value empathy, you can extend compassion and connect deeply to their experience. Too often, the value of empathy is being dismissed and replaced with a callousness and apathy that permeates every sector of society. If you are attempting to start a new business and fail during your first try, rather than being greeted with words of compassion or being coached, you may be on the receiving end of words such as “You should have prepared more” or “Your business plan was weak” or “You needed to do more research before making the leap”. Apathy’s default is always what you could have done better and how you are a victim of your own weakness and lack of preparedness. It never considers circumstances out of your control, unexpected roadblocks or the emotional roller coaster endured to reach a particular goal.

The lack of empathy doesn’t end in the business arena, but extends in relationships, employment, and other areas of life. If you’re relationship or friendship failed, you don’t have what it takes. If you still are unemployed, you didn’t look hard enough. If you’re in need of assistance, you’re lazy. If you are having a hard time loosing the weight, you’re undisciplined. See the pattern? Apathy immediately resorts to what is wrong with you or what’s missing. Empathy relates to your pain, demonstrates compassion and serves to journey with you to healing and wholeness. Your pain may have been a result of wrong decisions. Your condition may have been a consequence of your poor planning. But, when you are bleeding, you need to address the wound with tender love and care. If I’m bleeding, I simply don’t need good thoughts my way or feeling sorry for me (pity or sympathy). I need sympathy with a compassionate response. I need empathy.

Whether you are in a leadership role or serving others, we all can grow in valuing empathy for our fellow man and woman. When I review the Scriptures, I see a man by the name of Jesus who spoke truth but in love. I witnessed a man who showed compassion, coupled with correction. I see a man who took time to tackle the problem and not the person. We can all learn from Jesus’ example. And if you find yourself having difficulty showing empathy to others, I would suggest you ask yourself this question: “How would I like to be treated?” – RF