The following is a reprint of the Letter from the Editor for Volume 3, Issue 1 of Christ and Pop Culture Magazine: “The Necessary Sacrifice of Empathy,” available for free for a limited time. You can subscribe to Christ and Pop Culture Magazine by becoming a member and you’ll receive a host of other benefits as well.
The world isn’t short for places to spend our empathy. If empathy were allotted to us each day in a stack of cash, we would be broke before noon. Brokenness permeates those we love and those we encounter, tugging at our heartstrings until they’re weak and brittle.
When the world’s pain sits at the door of my heart, I am tempted to bolt the door and turn away. It is no small feat to stir my heart to love and to engage when pains are seemingly new every morning. Extending empathy is never easy or without cost. But if we consider the alternative—refusing to extend empathy to a world in need—it is no longer a matter of what’s easy or free. A world without empathy is a terrible one, indeed.
It is because this world is imperfect that we must move toward greater empathy. Offering empathy to those in need is an act of sacrifice, to be sure. It’s the sort of love that Jesus commanded us to display to our neighbors (which means, basically, everyone). Empathy is seeing the pain of others and being willing to join them in it. But we can’t join the pain we refuse to acknowledge, so awareness is the first step. Kristin Jamieson’s feature titled “Empathy as Culture Shock” gives us inspiring instruction for cultivating awareness for those who are too easy to overlook:
“To look at your culture through the eyes of a member of a minority group—their place within our country, their history and experiences—can cause major culture shock. To empathize with someone who has had a very different experience than you—in the same nation, same state, same city—can be disorienting, displacing, distressing. . . . The command to love our neighbor should stir us to similar humility and empathy with non-Christians. Empathizing with the experiences of others, especially others with less power and privilege, is a God-honoring exercise in replacing our fictions.”
Choosing to see how others see primes our hearts toward empathy. Even so, we must also be aware that the imperfect world requiring our empathy also affects our ability to extend it. Our attempts to show empathy are flawed—as are the attempts of others. The empathy we desire from others is not likely to be dispensed perfectly. In the most tender of places where empathy is needed most, we must tread carefully. Empathy is salve when applied properly or salt for a wound when applied erroneously. Maureen Garcia shares the pain of empathy misapplied in her feature titled “What’s Their Problem? Sharing Our Pews with Sexual Abuse Victims and Survivors.” Garcia offers us instruction by pinpointing the pitfalls of practicing empathy without first knowing what true empathy is:
“In more than a decade of research, almost every article I’ve come across addressing sex offenders in church communities reveals pastors and leaders focusing exclusively on the sex offenders—the theological grounds for their presence, the church’s obligation to care for them, how to support them, how to monitor them, how to protect ministries from potential lawsuits due to their presence, and so on—at the expense of the victims/survivors and those who love them.”
Practicing empathy is anything but easy. We have to put aside what we know to learn something knew. We will have to weary ourselves in doing good and extending empathy toward those who need it. It is a great act of love, but it is also an act of self-preservation. A heart that fails to practice empathy will soon shrivel up. Empathy is like a muscle, needing exercise to prevent atrophy. And the more it’s used, the greater its capacity. The world’s need for empathy isn’t likely to diminish and so we must lean upon God’s grace to make our hearts beat with more and more to meet the need.