On Empathy and Assholes…An Essay…

Who are you really responsible for in this world? Who in this world is deserving of your empathy? Who is your neighbor? Can you love your neighbor as yourself even if you find him to be a bit of an asshole? An expression of emotional and spiritual maturity is being able to see your self in others and elements of others within yourself. (That includes the not so pleasant elements that exist within ourselves and others.) However, this does not seem to be happening much in society as of late. There seems to be a great deal of argument these days over who and what we are individually responsible for in society. Some believe in rugged individualism and that each individual is solely responsible for themselves. Others want to extend great social safety nets to protect everyone from any and all conceived pain or discomfort. Another group sees there to be a middle ground in how we are responsible for others in society. This is not a new argument. It has existed probably for the entire existence of humanity. It ultimately becomes a question of empathy. There is a parable that Jesus tells captured in the writings of Luke. It begins with Jesus teaching that we should love our neighbors as ourselves. A somewhat arrogant and self righteous lawyer stood up in the crowd and publicly asked the question: “Well then, who is my neighbor?” Jesus goes on to tell a story about a man traveling between cities. He was attacked, robbed, and left for dead in a ditch by the road. Three different people came along in the story. First a priest walked by. He crossed to the other side of the road ignoring the man. The Levite (another priestly figure) came next and did exactly as the priest had done completely ignoring the man. Then a Samaritan comes along. In this day, Samaritans were despised by the Jews, but this man went to help the one who had been attacked. He patched him up, put him on his own donkey, and transported the hurt man into town. He then payed expenses to an inn keeper to give the man a place to stay while he recovered. Jesus reinforced to the young lawyer in this story that the Samaritan was the neighbor to the one in crisis. While the lawyer wanted to pick and choose who had enough value to be his “neighbor,” Jesus reminded him that we have value and are all neighbors to one another. Despite being despised by the Jewish people of the day, the Samaritan still saw the value in that suffering person and extended himself to help out. Empathy. It is a difficult concept for many. It is hard because it requires us to put ourselves aside for a moment in favor of another. It requires us to look into the eyes of another human being and imagine what it is that they may be feeling. It requires true connection and vulnerability because as we imagine the feelings of another who is suffering, empathy requires of us to imagine ourselves in a position of similar suffering. It is a choice to enter into the emotional space and pain of another in order to help them improve their situation. Empathy is not something to be earned by the recipient and it is not required of another person. It is a choice. Empathy chooses to see beyond the externals and the behavior into the emotions of another. It can be applied to those around you even (perhaps especially) if you think that person is an asshole. It is fully realized when the person experiences their own emotions understood and reflected back to them. It is the greatest gift one human being can give another for nothing else shows the care and concern expressed when someone experiences another person to cares about them enough to try to imagine and truly understand their feelings and perspective. It truly is an expression of loving your neighbor as yourself. True empathy realizes that we are interconnected. It pushes us to take responsibility for others even when we are not required to and recognizes that we may indeed be in need of someone stepping into our emotional space to help one day too. Empathy realizes that we are one and shrinks the emotional distance between us as people. Empathy realizes that we have just as much capacity to be the asshole as someone else does. It recognizes that our individual and collective value far surpasses what the opinion of another is and that all are deserving of empathy. It can be tasking, but it is a concept that the world desperately needs right now. When was the last time you truly looked into the eyes of another with no other motivation than to try to understand that person and to help them to be encouraged and to heal? When was the last time you were the asshole needing empathy? When was the last time you were the Samaritan? One final thought…if you found yourself focusing on the language in this essay over the overall message, you may have just missed the forest for the trees…-

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