I was talking to friends when I looked over and saw her sitting on the curb, all alone, legs splayed on the hot concrete, arms crossed, face buried in her shirt. Eve doesn’t do alone much so I figured something must be wrong.
I walked over, sat down. She turned her back to me.
“Eve, what’s wrong?”
“Something,” I said.
I put my arms around her and pulled her into my lap.
“What’s wrong, Eve?” I asked, more tenderly this time.
“I’m embarrassed,” she whispered. “I spilled water on my shirt and people laughed.”
I looked down at the water bottle in her lap, half full. I grabbed it, unscrewed the cap, and poured the whole thing on my shirt.
Eve smiled, looked up at me, and said, “Thank you, Mommy.”
Then she ran away to play.
Brenee Brown says empathy is seeing someone in a pit and crawling down into the pit to say “Me, too.” She says empathy connects us to one another.
We show empathy when we make ourselves vulnerable, when we enter someone’s embarrassment or shame or sadness, when we don’t try to pull them up right away, but instead sit down beside them and pour water on our shirt.
That’s what it looks like to be like Jesus, Jesus who gave up the glory of Heaven to come down into our pit. Jesus who took our sins on Himself on the cross. Jesus who sat down beside a woman no one else would talk to and went to parties with tax collectors and didn’t care to be rich.
Recently I was reading about the feeding of five thousand, about how the food offered by the boy was the kind of food the poorest people in Galilee would have eaten. That the bread, a barley loaf, would not have been anyone’s first choice for lunch. And yet. Jesus doesn’t transform the food; He makes more of it. And He eats it like it is, right beside this generous little boy.
How many times have I given a homeless person a pack of crackers on my way to eat sushi?
Here’s what I’ve noticed: we Christians (me included) sometimes like sympathy more than empathy. We’d rather not get down into the pit. Instead we stand above it, tossing down advice and assistance. Brown says sympathy calls to the person in the pit, “Want a sandwich?”
While empathy fuels connection, sympathy reinforces difference. Sympathy isn't bad, it's just not best. And it rarely, if ever, leads to belonging.
We like sympathy because it’s convenient, because it doesn’t require us to give up much, because it lets us keep our hands clean. Our preference for sympathy is why...
We’re much more likely to start a food pantry than move into a poor neighborhood.
We’re more likely to donate money to a rough school than show up and mentor kids or, God forbid, enroll our kids.
We “adopt” a kid in Guatemala (sending money every month) but don’t move to Guatemala to help jumpstart local business or plant a church.
We say something about loving gay people on Facebook but don’t pursue relationships with gay people in our everyday lives.
We drop off food or send cards to the bereaved, but don’t stick around to hold their hands while they cry.
I’ve found a lot of people (including me more often than I'd like) prefer to keep a safe distance when it comes to helping the poor, oppressed, weak, marginalized or suffering--like maybe whatever’s "wrong" with them might rub off on us if we get too close.
That’s gross. And we’ve got to get over it.
Jesus is God with us. My hope (and God’s expectation) is that the poor, oppressed, marginalized and suffering people of this world would be able to say that we, God’s people, are with them. Not that we helped them from on high, but that we climbed down into their hurting, giving up position and power, to love them.