This was submitted for a grade, and I am reposting it here on my personal blog page. It is an excerpt of the final paper required.
Tanya M. Reddin
Colorado Christian University
CSL-613-ONB73-SP20: Empathy Training
Dr. Trigg Even
April 24, 2020
My Personal Empathy Journey
From the very first mention of an Empathy Training class, I had mixed emotions. I kept finding myself somewhere between fearful and doubtful, as if I could be trained to have empathy. I do not consider myself as someone who naturally has empathy. I have often been rejected after vulnerable conversations (Welsh, n.d.) and often feel as if a wall is built up around my emotions. The only shift or crack in this wall has to do with the loss of my spouse. From that moment in time, I have been able to know the hurt of losing a loved one and all the various facets of dealing with life since then. I have hope that I can indeed help others and sit with them or walk with them during dark times. Focusing on Scripture has provided the best comfort for me during the days after losing my spouse. During the last seven weeks in this class, I have learned much about empathy and the command to love others. My upbringing and my grief experience have an impact in my capacity for empathy. Most significantly I found that having empathy is not only possible, but I can actually choose it in difficult circumstances, and I can grow in my abilities to have empathy.
The Difference Faith Makes
My faith has made a difference in understanding empathy because I know God loves me and that He is with me. I am comforted by the Holy Spirit in every way, and I lack nothing. My faith has given me a hope that says His promises will all come true and to just wait for Him. Because of this gift of faith, my empathy towards others can be continually growing. I do feel that I have a long way to go before I can truly have empathy for others. My prayer right now is that I could have more empathy and that I would understand it better. During the weeks of this course, I believe this goal was accomplished.
I honestly believed the Lord has been working in my life to bring the practice of empathy in my life over the years I have been married. Early in my marriage I remember praying for “compassion” and around that time, my good friend’s husband died from an aorta rupture. She went through so much, and she held on to the Lord. I tried to be there for her, and even though we got together, we did not do very many things together anymore. I just did not know what it was like to be widowed. She remarried 15 years later and became a missionary in Honduras. She was the first person I went to see after my husband passed away. I felt that if anyone could offer empathy it would be her. It was a good visit, and I’m glad I went to see her. When Greg passed away, other people said uncomfortable things and things that made me angry and hurt and ashamed. I learned what should and should not be said to widows at least from my own point-of-view. Now I know better than to say the “at least” statements and trying to put a silver-lining on hard situations as described by Brown (2013).
My children are a special case of my development in empathy. For the most part, I am a tough mom. I would not consider minor injuries a thing to get upset about; in fact, I believe it is best to remain calm during times when someone is hurt. However, I do feel their hurt when they are neglected by friends or laughed at by others. I do not always respond how I should. I go back and forth from getting involved or staying away from the situation and letting them work it out. Some of my children say they do feel sad when others feel sad. My youngest son will come up to me during a song at church and look at my face to see if I am sad, and he will put a hand on my shoulder if he thinks I am sad. He usually gets it right too. He is a good example to me of empathy.
My classmates and I took an empathy test during the second week. My results from the online Empathy Test were labeled “medium,” at 56%. The questions asked of me were not ones I typically ask myself. I wish they had a wider selection of options, like on a scale of one to five, instead of just three choices. For example, when I hear or see a baby crying, I am not indifferent or annoyed, but I am not particularly sad or worried either. Most of my answers were “sometimes” because there are times when I do feel sad for people, but it is not the majority of the time. My guess is that if the choices where on a larger scale, my percentage would actually be lower.
If I have any empathy skills, it will be because I know what it is like to lose a spouse and best friend. I have only gained this over the last four years, because, before that, my life had not seen much trouble. After experiencing the cancer diagnosis and his slow fade and, ultimately, my widowhood, I got to endure the best efforts of well-meaning people who tried their hardest to empathize. Looking towards the future, I intend to grow in empathy even more than I gained in the last four years. I hope to be able to empathize with happy people too—people who can celebrate 25 years of marriage or more. This may be more difficult to do than empathize with people who are depressed. I hope to grow in empathy in all forms of emotions. I believe the Lord has called me to a higher place of loving others—a command that I have fought against internally for too long.
My Empathy Test Results
Even though the empathy test reflected a score of 56%, it does not go deep enough to reflect the kinds of empathy I embrace more easily than others. I hope to develop the empathy skill of being able to sense a person’s emotion by looking at them and reflecting even a “pale comparison” to the emotion they may be having (Decety & Ickes, 2009). I would like to see myself grow in all areas of empathy—rejoicing when others are rejoicing and mourning when others are mourning (Romans 12:15, ESV). I would like to be able to listen to another’s emotion without thinking about what I would do if I were having that particular emotion. I would like to step beyond sympathy.
Ready to Give Empathy
Because of my widow status, I have acute empathy for this segment of our population. I would also put a qualifier in this segment as those who are widowed with children still living at home. I could offer deep understanding even more so if the widowed with children had their spouse die because of cancer. I’ve had empathy for those whose family member has died from cancer too. I also have a heart for people serving in ministry in various capacities whether a pastor, a pastor’s wife, or missionary families especially the single women serving as missionaries. I have listened and stood with so many in this field that I just want to be available to them and help them in encouragement and true friendship. I have a natural empathy for senior adults; I do not know why, but I just like them. I like their experiences and their stories of their life.
More Difficult to Have Empathy
Those for whom empathy might become a struggle would be those who have lost a mother or grandmother. The loss of nurture escapes me. Also, I may not have much empathy for struggling marriages because mine was really good, and it is hard for me to understand a perspective of someone who refuses to forgive a spouse. I would give anything to have mine back. In addition to the groups mentioned, those with addiction or physical/sexual abuse are not people I come into contact with normally, so I am not sure if I would be able to offer anyone helpful counsel. I am willing to learn though.
Correlation of the Matthew Passages
Both Matthew 5 and Matthew 7 are the words of Jesus to his followers. Both passages are giving instruction on how to relate to others and so fulfill the command to “love your neighbor as yourself.” Both passages put the follower with someone who is struggling with unknown issues. In Matthew 5, if I am counseling with someone who is struggling with certain issues and perhaps are demanding of me in various ways, I can be there with them, walk with them, feel their pain, do things I would rather not, and give of myself in ways that show the love of God. In Matthew 7, if I am counseling with someone who is struggling with a certain issue, I can find all the things wrong with them and what they have done. I can tell them how they can change, and I can give them Bible verses to make it all better, but I will have left them disappointed, judged, and not willing to share. I would not have led a brother closer to Christ, and I would not have followed the command to love others. As I grow in empathy, may I adopt the practices that Jesus lays out in these passages. May I be a person that sees someone struggling and using their words to hurt and help them over and above their demands. I should seek to understand emotions and actions from their point-of-view. At the same time, for me to grow in empathy, I should walk with them through issues without judgment and reflect on my own issues before saying anything. I should be ready to repent of my sins before I ever look at someone else’s sins and offer grace by listening.
Empathy and Grace
Grace is a gift. It cannot be earned or bought. The Lord gives grace by giving His children what they do not deserve, first and foremost, salvation. As a human, made in the image of God, I can also give grace, a gift that is not deserved. Empathy given by one human to another demonstrates this gift. It is the attitude behind grace. For example, if a hostess is considered gracious, she will open her home and offer food and drink. She does this because she feels for another, and whether consciously or not, she has sacrificed her personal possessions for the benefit of another. God has been the most gracious One of all. He has provided salvation through His Son, at great cost to Himself for the benefit of mere humans. He has put Himself in our place and became human and took on flesh to provide eternal life for us (John 1:14, Philippians 2:8, ESV).
Grace in a Fallen World
Not only is it possible for human beings to practice Christ-like grace, I would go another step and say it is required. The Lord commands us as His followers to love one another. This would entail even loving our enemies (Matthew 5:44, ESV). This is undeserved favor or kindness, and Christ is not only our example of how to do this, He has accomplished this grace-giving through His death as payment for our sins. While we His enemies, He brought us to Himself (Romans 5:10, ESV). Because He forgave such a great debt, we would do a greater evil in not forgiving others who have wronged us (Matthew 18:27-35, ESV). This forgiveness is an aspect of grace that benefits both the giver and receiver and is required of all Christ-followers.
Grace Towards Others
Real life issues that would be difficult to be gracious to others would include the way a person’s parents treated him (e.g. neglect). Perhaps it would be hard to be gracious to others because of how relatives treat a person (e.g. abuse). Another real-life issue that would make graciousness difficult would be if one of the Ten Commandments were violated against a person or their family members. I imagine that forgiving a murderer or an adulterer would only be possible if the Lord graced a person with the ability to forgive. Also showing grace and forgiveness if that person is unrepentant would be extremely challenging. Relationships are messy, and people do not always show love when it is needed. Grace in the form of forgiveness and love, even though they may be extremely difficult to reconcile in your mind, must still be a Christian’s goal and is achievable with the help of the Holy Spirit.
Legal issues should be decided on in the proper way, whether by police, judge, or lawyer. Forgiveness and offering grace are still acceptable on a personal level, but legally we must follow proper channels of justice. A person can forgive and at the same time follow through with consequences. God is the ultimate judge, and while sometimes rulings do not always give the correct punishment for an offense, I see that as God’s hand of justice or mercy being shown.
Grace from my Children
Personally, I have experienced grace from my children. I do not deserve to continue to love them and care for them because I can be too harsh towards them. However, they have extended grace to me. Sometimes I have asked for forgiveness for my words and sometimes I haven’t, yet they can still approach me and say, “That hurt, but I forgive you.” This is grace.
Lessons from Born to Love (Perry & Szalavitz, 2011)
Danny’s story taught me that “trust and consistency are clearly important for the development of empathy and morality” (Perry & Szalavitz, 2011, Chapter 5, Section 3, para. 1). This idea that a counselor and client would need to have a trusting and communicating relationship to form empathetic ties seems simple, and yet I have not considered the impact it would have in healing and moving forward. In acquiring the skill to be empathetic, I want others to know that I am truthful in my concern for them. As a counselor, I would keep a foundation of consistent truth to have as a professional goal in hopes of drawing clients to seek truth too.
In Alyson’s story, I learned that too much empathy could be a disadvantage making one more vulnerable to peer pressure (Perry & Szalavitz, 2011, Chapter 8, Section 4, para. 7). Following another group of individuals shows a person they may have empathy, but if the influences are pointing in the wrong direction, trouble will not be far away. If I had a client that seemed to try to fit what everyone else wanted him/her to do, my encouragement would be find ways to have positive peer pressure instead of fighting the natural tendencies of a person who is likely to follow the crowd.
In Terrell’s story, I learned that we all must find ways to deal with ordinary stress, and that this will help break an escalating cycle of fear and threats and high stress situations (Perry & Szalavitz, 2011, Chapter 9, Section 1, para. 19). In a counseling situation, not only would I personally need to monitor my own stress levels, but I would also want to share how that is done for my client. These three stories had me reflecting on counseling relationships and considering how to handle and think through a number of different personal stories.
In addition to the personal stories in a counseling relationship, I also learned from the example of Trinity in Born to Love. Her story concludes that suffering can produce more empathy. Also connecting with others who have empathy, as the empathetic Myrna showed Trinity, can increase the care and concern towards others that are not necessarily related and produce a more empathetic person (Perry & Szalavitz, 2011). In a counseling role, the grief I have experienced has only increased my understanding and empathy towards others who have experienced the same. During my darkest days, I gravitated towards those that showed true empathy and did not preach to me or tell me what I ought to do. I have continued to seek the same attitude in all my relationships, growing in empathy and love toward others.
Growth in Empathy
Of all that I am internalizing and learning, empathy through humility because of who God is and what Jesus has done for me has been the most profound. I still have so far to go in following the command to love one another. I believe in the connection of loving others and empathy, and this study has given me the tools for which I have been searching for many years. I can see that God is shining a spotlight on what it means to love others. He has shown His love for the humans He created through grace and mercy and humility. With each of these characteristics, I am able to grow in the ability to have empathy for others.
The biblical concept of humility is explained in the Encyclopedia of the Bible as “not the inverted conceit which disguises itself as lowliness” but is the correct understanding of who you are and you “gratefully acknowledge[s] God’s sovereign bestowal of gifts and His sovereign enablement in service” (n.d.). This description of humility is given in correlation to the Philippians 2 passage where Paul tells the Philippian believers to “Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves” (Philippians 2:3, ESV). That is, if I know and believe what God has done for me, I should be thankful. As God has given me, so I can give to others. What I can give them is empathy and love without condition and to consider them more important than myself. As difficult as it may be, I can and should respond with compassion to anyone, even those in the disadvantaged population. This is not because I have this great and wonderful characteristic in myself, but only because He has told me who I am, and I realize what my own state would be without Him.
Lack of Humility
Despite the direction to show compassion, I do not always love others as I should even though I believe that Jesus has paid my sin debt with His own blood. I know that I am called to love others with the love of Christ, and yet my pride gets in the way. I do look to my own interests all the time. I do want to grasp the glory and attention that others get to have. I fail to listen thoroughly to others because I have my own thoughts and goals. The ability to listen to others is a skill I feel that I am always working to improve. God has given me plenty of opportunity to practice listening and subsequently empathy in most all of my relationships of late. I believe I am headed in the right direction, but every step is a step over or around my pride.
A Spiritual Crisis of Grief
Even though we all deal with pride at some level, we all still suffer in different ways. A spiritual crisis, such as grief, might also be complicated by unanswered prayer. In my example client, her situation of losing her husband even after praying for healing is a perspective that I understand precisely. My made-up client’s story begins with a wonderful marriage to a kind and godly man. They have young children, and they attend a small, family-friendly church in which they have many close friends. One August afternoon, they get back a biopsy report that says the husband does have cancer. The client is at the house of a friend and church small group is about to begin. With just hearing this diagnosis, the church friends gather for prayer. After a year of praying and pleading and watching for a miracle, the husband dies.
Everyone in the church is sad; everyone in the church tries to help. However, all help is not helpful. Who will my client listen to and who will she avoid? When she comes in to see me, my questions will be focused on understanding her and all that she has lost. So, I will ask, “Tell me more about your husband. What was he like? What sort of things did you do together?” Listening for understanding will be the first priority to me. I want to be someone she could trust. If she began to share uncomfortable stories that made her unload anger at God for not healing her husband, I would still just listen for the most part. I might ask about her heart and ways she could be healed and if she knew of any Scripture that addressed unanswered prayer. I would ask about forgiveness and her views of the nature of God. If she had the wrong view about who God is and why this happened, I would keep my opinion to myself unless she asked. I want her to realize and figure out what God is teaching her, so she hears it in her heart, but I would try very hard to really hear her and understand her. Because her relationship to her husband is so personal, she hasn’t just lost the husband/wife relationship, she has lost this particular person. Those who know her husband can empathize in one way, and those who have lost a spouse can empathize in an entirely different way. Nobody completely can understand.
Not fully listening can keep someone from understanding my client’s situation. Asking questions that put her on the defensive is judgmental and would be the cause of more heartache. Not communicating because it is too hard for a person to empathize with my client will increase her loneliness. Giving trite answers to life’s difficult quandaries is just frustrating. Explaining away the loss in Christian-ese or questioning the faith of the client is judgmental and infuriating. Short of taking the blame oneself for not praying hard enough, one should not question the faith of the widow. It is best to not even entertain assumptions on the amount of faith or a person’s walk with the Lord.
Job’s Situation in Grief
The book of Job seems to be given as the quintessential tool to those who have suffered in various trials, especially grief. I feel as though I ought to have understood it more deeply before this week’s study of the first eleven chapters. I have always wondered why the friends’ words were recorded, and many times quoted, as truth. If, at the end of the book, God says that the friends were wrong, why do theology students still quote them in respect to the character of God? In light of my study in empathy, the words of the friends and why they are wrong, have finally clicked in my understanding, and I could not be more excited to fully grasp the reasons they were so wrong.
I see now why the friends were wrong. It was not because of their theological viewpoints, but rather their lack of empathy and understanding towards Job. When they spoke, they were judgmental and assuming. When they spoke, they did not ask Job questions and accept his thoughts and answers as true. They told him what they thought, and they told him what he should think, and they told him what he should do. The harshest friend was Zophar who may have spoken the truth about who God is, but he basically called Job a fool.
Will your idle talk reduce others to silence? Will no one rebuke you when you mock? … Can you fathom the mysteries of God? Can you probe the limits of the Almighty? But the witless can no more become wise than a wild donkey’s colt can be born human [emphasis added]. … Yet if you devote your heart to him and stretch out your hands to him, if you put away the sin that is in your hand and allow no evil to dwell in your tent, then, free of fault, you will lift up your face; you will stand firm and without fear” (Job 11:3, 7, 12-15, NIV).
Even Job’s wife, who lost everything except her husband, suggests a plan of action that is not helpful nor healing. She is in depths of the same suffering when she suggests that Job ought to “curse God and die” (Job 2:9). At first glance, Eliphaz’s words may seem like encouragement, but to someone grieving, it sounds dismissive of the pain. Job 5:17 reads, “Blessed is the one whom God corrects; so do not despise the discipline of the Almighty.”
Growing in Empathy
Whether it is joyful or grievous or somewhere in between, I have learned that empathy is feeling the feelings of others in order to understand their viewpoint. This may involve mimicking the face, voice, or posture of another person (Decety & Ickes, 2009). It may also involve listening and hearing another’s story and considering it a gift (Spencer, 2016). Anytime I have empathy for another and show compassion in some way, I am following the Lord’s command to love one another.
After reading the chapter entitled “Mirror, Mirror, in my Mind” (Decety & Ickes, 2009), I considered what affective empathy would mean to me as I grew in empathy. As a child, my conduct grade (i.e. social skills) would typically be much lower than my academic skills. Does this mean that I did not possess the solid ability to have affective empathy? Now, as an adult, I can work on my empathy, cognitively and affectively. The definition of empathy can include both the “volitional act of ‘putting oneself into somebody else’s shoes’” and a reliance “on a foundation of shared affect between self and other” (p. 184). Not only do I have the ability to think that I can feel what someone else feels, I also can reflect what someone else feels naturally without consciously thinking about it.
Impact of Empathy
The chapter entitled “Warm as Iceland” (Perry & Szalavitz, 2011), impacted me the most, especially concerning the current climate of the Coronavirus. This chapter discusses how and why Iceland is a healthy and happy country. Much of the discussion focused on their social network and the trust they have in one another. The author says, “Trust, however, relies on human relationships, and as we’ve seen throughout this book, those relationships rely on empathy” (para. 16). The empathy, trust, and relationships drive economic prosperity. The rest of the chapter compares Iceland to America and economic stability based on trust and empathy. It also mentions the inequalities of our society especially between the rich and poor (Perry & Szalavitz, 2011). Today, when I go to the store to get groceries and everyone’s face is covered with a mask, I am prevented from giving or getting empathy. I do not trust anyone, and no one seems to trust me. Our economic way of life and doing business is crumbling before my eyes.
While working on my video presentation, I watched the presentation by Keysers from the Institute of Neuroscience in Netherlands (2017). The most interesting part I found in the experiments that Keysers discussed was about the alteration his wife suggested he try. She suggested that he ask all the subjects being studied to try to be as empathetic as possible. The result was that even the “psychopaths” were able to have as much empathy as the normal functioning people, suggesting that all people can choose to have empathy or choose not to have empathy. Even the last question from an audience member asked if the research has implications for educators teaching empathy, and Keysers responded by saying, “I think actually there’s a very good colleague of mine Jamil Zaki in California that precisely looks at that question. He tries to prime people either with the notion that empathy is a fixed entity or that empathy is something you can work on, that you can modify” (2017, 14:45). I am interested in seeing what these further studies conclude, because I want to know for certain that I can grow in my empathetic responses.
I can also have a healthy level of empathy by being aware of my spiritual walk and emotions. I would practice this awareness by establishing a quiet time of prayer, reading Scripture, routine retreats, and journaling. This practice should become a priority. I can also be aware of emotions I deal with on a daily basis especially the ones that coincide with trauma or grief. I can show awareness of other people’s emotions in an empathic way as to gain insight into their perspectives. I can also be aware of any empathy fatigue by having a strong social network, mentors, and prayer friends.
From this point on I will accept the challenge of loving others in the particular way of first having empathy and then doing what I can to help. Adams defines Biblical empathy as “entering into the problem even more deeply than the counselee has in order to discover God’s viewpoint” (1981, p.32). I also hope to find the generosity in the stories that clients and friends share with me (Spencer, 2015).
At the beginning of this class, I was afraid I would not do well because I lack natural, affective empathy which should have been installed in me as an infant. After researching the definitions of sympathy, empathy, and compassion, and having read all the required reading for this class, and watching the videos, I have come to the conclusion that I can, indeed, learn to have empathy. This has been an impactful journey for me. Most endearing to me is that empathy is wrapped up in the command to “love others as you love yourself” (Mark 12:31, ESV). I believe this is one way Christians can share the gospel and have influence in a fallen, ungodly world. Personally, I believe that not only can I grow in empathy, I can choose empathy.
Adams, J.E. (1981). The language of counseling and the Christian counselor’s wordbook. Zondervan Publishing House.
Humility. (n.d.). Encyclopedia of the Bible. Retrieved from https://
Brown, B. (2013, Dec. 10). Brené Brown on empathy. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1Evwgu369Jw&t=65s
Decety, J. & Ickes, W. (2009). The social neuroscience of empathy. [VitalSource Bookshelf].
Retrieved from https://bookshelf.vitalsource.com/#/books/9780262293365/
Keysers, C. (2017, January 23). The empathic brain-MSCA-neuroscience [Video].
Perry, B. D., & Szalavitz, M. D. (2011). Born for love: Why empathy is essential – and
endangered. doi: https://platform.virdocs.com/r/s/0/doc/121593/sp/5872293/mi/
Spencer, A. (2016). Stories as gift: Patient narratives and the development of empathy. Journal of Genetic Counseling, 25(4), 687–690. https://doi-org.ezproxy.ccu.edu/10.1007/s10897-015-9886-9
Welsh, M. (n.d.) Spiritual growth: Made for relationship. Cru. doi: https://www.cru.org/us/en/train-and-grow/spiritual-growth/made-for-relationship.html.