A Path to Empathy and Understanding

~Sharon Wilson

Last Thursday evening I was settled on the couch to watch Joe Biden’s acceptance speech but the most moving part of the evening was the speech given by 13-year-old Brayden Harrington.

If you have suffered from a speech impairment you will have watched this with a massively open heart and a deep well of memories. I held my breathe each time he paused, willing him to find the next word. I celebrated each complete sentence and paragraph. By the time he was finished I felt like fireworks should be exploding in the sky at this triumph of courage.

How do we walk in another’s shoes with empathy and understanding? How do we ascend beyond politeness? How can we really listen, share our experiences and, if we are very blessed, change another’s life?

Cheryl spoke of this in her Sunday reflections; about diving deep into the silences, waiting with openness for the formless words of dreams and visions. She invited us to think of the moments of holiness that we have known.

Often this means really listening to another. Being open to how real and powerful the encounter was. As that long list of caregivers, academics, theologians and ordinary folk Cheryl named attests, deep and holy moments are real and life-transforming.

The dream that captured Cheryl, and the courage that propelled Brayden, formed by empathy. They took flesh and flight because someone stopped and entered the world of another in an intimate and vulnerable way. They committed to learn and share an experience. They were prepared to go deep, to invest in the other.

The path to empathy and understanding wends its way through curiosity, patience, openness, and vulnerability. It involves stopping and listening. That means focusing of what is being said and on the speaker NOT on your pithy response!

It means getting off your own schedule and agenda and being willing to have your time disrupted. Mostly, empathy is honest and gracious. It reaches out to understand rather than to fix. When we are empathetic we position ourselves to be surprised, inspired and blessed with unexpected moments that can only, truly be of God.