“Rejoice with those who rejoice; weep with those who weep.” (Romans 12:15)
I keep encountering empathy in things I read and hear these days. Empathy – “the ability to understand and share the feelings of another” (one online dictionary’s definition) – is sorely lacking in our civil discourse, especially on social media. And so different voices keep rallying for empathy, for walking in another person’s shoes. I agree with the immediate need for empathy. But as someone who is empathetic and is in a vocation in which I’m called to understand and share the feelings of another, I believe our understanding of empathy must be nuanced.
I recently heard a speaker at a women’s conference define empathy as listening and participating in a person’s story. Because empathy requires one to enter into another’s story, it costs something: we feel not only the joy but the pain of another. This speaker quoted Romans 12:15: We are called by Scripture to not only rejoice with those who rejoice, but weep with those who weep. She could have just as easily quoted Galatians 6:2, a command to “bear one another’s burdens.”
Now, I may be overinterpreting what this speaker had to say, but her talk left me uncomfortable. Does empathy really require us to enter into another person’s story? How can we participate in the burdens of another without being crushed by them? I may be sensitive to this because I emerged from a place of emotional burnout early in my work as a pastor. I felt deeply the pain of my congregants, and it wore me out.
I didn’t have the emotional resources to carry the pain of others while dealing with my own pain and grief. This was particularly haunting for me in relationships in which congregants made choices that dug them deeper into pain or need. None of my efforts to enter their stories seemed to actually do any good, at least “good” as I defined it (e.g. put them on the path to healing).
In times of burnout, I return to Madeline L’Engle’s young adult novel, “A Ring of Endless Light.” Vicky, a teenager, is dating a young man who demands that she take care of him. Vicky is a balm for his pain. As Vicky tells her grandfather, “He needs me.” Vicky’s grandfather replies by quoting John Donne, “Other men’s crosses are not my crosses” and then goes on to say, “there is a certain vanity in thinking we can nurse the world.”
Ouch. Is my empathy borne out of calling and care for another, or out of pride? Is it my pride that leads me to care for others, to try to fix their pain? Nuancing empathy gives me room to ask these hard questions.
I’m not convinced that empathy without nuance helps anyone. How many of us try to unburden ourselves by taking advantage of someone’s empathy? Handing over the burden to an empathetic one may cause temporary relief, but it doesn’t lead to healing. Curiously, Paul, just three verses later in Galatians 6, comments that “each will have to bear his [or her] own load” (Galatians 6:5). If we don’t work on our own stuff, if we don’t process our pain and take steps toward healing, then no amount of burden bearing by another will help us. We have to carry our own load.
Basically (even though it’s now cliché), I’m arguing for healthy boundaries in relationships of empathy. I’m not always successful with setting these boundaries, but I’ve found it helps to remember that the cross being borne by another is not mine. I can listen, offer advice (when asked), validate the experience by being present in it and pray. When I pray, I place the person in the hands of God. This is a reminder to me that God heals; I simply accompany people on the journey. Empathy is a natural gift I, and many pastors, bring to our pastoral vocation; I continue to learn the artof healthy empathy.
RACHEL YOUNG is the associate pastor of spiritual formation at Clear Lake Presbyterian Church, in Houston, Texas. She is married to Josh, who also serves on staff at Clear Lake Presbyterian as the director of contemporary worship and media.