When Lucy cries, my senses are alerted that there is a need. As a mother, my nurturing instincts take over and I immediately seek to "find and fix" the problem. Well, most of the time.... Sometimes she's just got to sit tight while I use the restroom, feel me? (; But this girl goes 0-100 before you can even say the words "holy buckets". Her high pitch screams set both Sam and I into a frenzy instantly (I also think we have PTSD from her colic days -- that's definitely a thing). Though we're saying the words, "Dude, chill" out loud... our hearts really do just want to scoop her up and make it all better.
I believe that these instincts are intentional design by God. I believe they are woven into us for a reason. But what seems to happen is we carry those well-meaning nurturing instincts and wills-to-fix into adulthood, and bring them out at some of the worst times.
We seem to have a society that's at a loss for empathy. We don't know what it looks like because maybe, we've never been taught, or worse, maybe we've never received it. By the grace of God, I was born to an extremely empathetic mother, who is truly moved by the burdens in my life and in those around her whom she may not even know. Growing up with her as my example, I had some semblance of a foundation for what true empathy looked like, not to mention I grew up learning the ways of Jesus, the ultimate when it comes to empathy. But I would venture to say that I never really had my empathy skills put to the test.
And then, a dark cloud came over my life as Sam and I struggled to become pregnant. And all of the well-meaning fixers skipped by dropping their "everything happens for a reason"s and "it'll happen in God's timing"s and then continued along their merry way. What was meant to be encouraging actually felt like taking a bullet at times. It got under my skin, made me angry and bitter and resentful. Made me want to close up and never share anything with anybody. How could that be? They were so well-meaning. Well, it's simple: because sympathy doesn't know how to be empathetic.
I think we have to learn to live in the space where others need to simply feel.
What I needed in my season of darkness was to be given the space to feel. The space to allow myself to acknowledge that sometimes, I was not okay. The space to know I was heard and validated regardless of how ridiculous I may have seemed. I did not need to be fixed. In this trial is where I learned the true meaning of empathy, and I'm not sure I would have understood its depths unless I had been put through fire. So, how can you take better steps toward empathy?
1) LISTEN. And I mean this in the most loving way: close your pie-hole. When someone close to you chooses to confide in you or share something vulnerable, give them your undivided attention. Do not check your phone, do not look around and do not interrupt to bring the story back to you. I am terribly guilty of all of these and vow to myself to be so much more intentional in being present so the people I'm with know that they're valued. Eye contact is everything.
2) VALIDATE. If you have nothing helpful to say at the moment, thank them for sharing something so personal with you and recognize that their perspective is their truth -- two things I've learned from the incredible Brené Brown. Acknowledge their feelings instead of shoving them down or dismissing them. Do not expect them to handle this the way you think you would or the way you think they should. Do not use the words "at least" to shine a light on some other part of their life as if their blessings should somehow cover up the painful seasons that life also brings. Two things can be true; you can feel extreme gratitude while also feeling pain so give both space to exist and manifest how they need to. And above all else, do not say the words "Everything happens for a reason." Imagine you just lost your spouse, suffered a miscarriage, found out you have cancer; would these words be comforting for you? Refrain from slapping a bandaid on their issue.
3) ENCOURAGE. Sometimes this is with words, sometimes in action. Remind them that they're not alone. That you're going to be with them through this, even if just in spirit from afar or through prayer. Knowing someone is in your corner can be life-saving. Proverbs 16:24 says, "Gracious words are a honeycomb, sweet to the soul and healing to the bones." Remind them that no season of pain lasts forever. What would you need to hear if you felt a dark cloud following you through life?
Ultimately, take the words of Brené to heart, "Rarely can a response make something better. What makes something better is connection."
Why seek to learn and practice empathy? Because we must... else, how have we any connection at all? Our relationships would be nothing but superficial and meaningless. We were created for connection; we cannot survive without relationships. I would love to hear some of your tips on how we all can be better empathizers! Or even some more "do not's" in the field of incorrect empathy aka sympathy. (; Leave them in the comments below.
PS - I've seen this video a hundred times and shared it with everyone I know who would appreciate it. It actually makes me cry because I can relate to that little fox so deeply. If you haven't read anything by Brené Brown, make sure you at least start with Daring Greatly and she will rock your world.