Six Ways to Flex Your Empathy Muscle

December 8, 2014

Giving Tuesday!

End of Year Campaign!

Save a life, spread Christmas cheer!

I don’t know about you, but my inbox is filled with charities and NGOs rolling out various holiday campaigns to solicit funding. Many of them rely on this season to sustain operations for the rest of the year. I, myself, am helping the school where I work, on a campaign to help refugees in Iraq/Syria, alongside many other charitable causes around the community. But it’s all good. My cause is not better than your cause. Contrary to businesses, we do not compete with one another, because doing good generates more of it. The scarcity model does not apply to justice and mercy.

However, a few words of caution in this season of generosity is in order. Our attitudes in giving must be a participation in making the world right, and not reflect a sense of superiority, as in giving hand-outs to those beneath us. There is a difference between doing charity and promoting justice. One bestows sympathy while the other employs empathy. The former doles out condescending pity while the latter establishes solidarity.

Brene Brown says this: “Empathy fuels connection. Sympathy drives disconnection.”

Empathy is what keeps us from seeing the

Empathy is the ability to feel with people. As Atticus Finch in To Kill A Mockingbird instructs Scout,

you need to step into someone else’s skin and walk around in it.

Some people are born with an innate empathetic inclination. They slip easily into another’s skin. Others struggle with empathy. I truly believe empathy is the basic building block to justice. Until we learn to feel with people, we will fail to humanize the other and extend equal dignity to all. I also believe empathy isn’t all or nothing. It is a muscle that can be exercised to grow stronger. Here I share six ways to exercise our empathy muscle this holiday season and beyond.

  1. Read. Compelling scientific research shows reading improves empathy. From the comfort of your favorite couch, one can explore the world, defying geography and time. Words transport us into the a worldview otherwise hidden from us, putting on spectacles of another person’s life experience.
  2. Cultivate curiosity about strangers. We all prefer to be comfortable. We gravitate to close friends at a party, and hang around people we know. I get it. But just a small effort to talk to strangers will go a long way in exercising the empathy muscle. And when you strike up conversation with a stranger,
  3. Ask questions. Don’t just talk about yourself all the time, you hear yourself enough! My friend, Gloria, has a sixth love language: “Asking questions.” She feels most loved when someone takes the time to care about specific aspects of her life. Digging deeper into someone else’s life develops that endurance for empathy. Practice makes perfect – so go find a stranger and ask them a good question.
  4. Share vulnerably. Again to draw from Brene Brown, the expert on vulnerability, people desire connectedness. For empathy to fuel connection, there must be a two way street. Becoming vulnerable tears down psychological barriers which keep us apart. Vulnerability invites more of it.
  5. Diversify your social circle. Don’t block your Facebook friends, even if they annoy you with differing political or theological stances. The danger of a single story is when our perspective is limited to one narrative, and then used to malign or de-humanize the other. A single story is the opposite of empathy. If you are uncomfortable with someone else’s offensive words, don’t rush to “hide” it. Let the discomfort work against you. Tension develops that empathy muscle.
  6. Activism. The natural result of an empathetic heart is a desire to advocate. As I have said, “when you have a friend in the margins, you fight with all you have to bring them benefits. Friendship erodes status, equalizes power, finds common ground, and demands mutual respect.” Champion a cause, sign petitions, raise awareness, and watch your empathy grow.

Empathy will save us.

Connection will save us.

Feeling with people will save us.

Empathy helps us see the beauty which exist in all peoples, and allows us to honor the dignity of the Imago Dei in every human being.

Empathy will be our weapon against the darkness of hate, the strife of hostility, of diminishing hope. With it, we will reach for nothing less than full restoration of humanity for every tribe across the nations.