Feb 17 2017
Empathy: Bridging the Impossible Chasms
by Rev. Nancy Palmer Jones
It’s May 2016, and First Unitarian’s Worship Associates and I stand in front of a flipchart sheet fluttering with sticky notes and scribbled over with words. We have taped flipchart paper to every door, wall, and window in the Fireside Room—one for each month in this congregational year. (Pro tip: The thematic year runs from September 2016 through May 2017; we usually fly free-form in the summers.)
Some of the other pages around the room read “Change,” “Earth,” “Kinship and Friendship.” They too draw lots of input as we brainstorm what these concepts mean for us human beings, trying to make sense of life and struggling with the challenges of these very times.
But at least on those flipchart sheets, the titles don’t take up much room.
On the one for March 2017, though, a line of words scrolls across the top of the page:
Understanding the Other; Understanding “the Other”(?); Civility; Dialogue
That’s why we stand there pondering …
What’s the impulse, and where’s the pain, behind these words? Why do we worship leaders intuitively cluster them together? What do we humans long to heal and what do we hope to understand when we touch the tender spots pointed to by these words?
Already in May 2016, the psychic pain of our sense of separation from each other, and the actual physical and emotional hurt of the distances between us, feel almost unbearable. The situation is both personal and communal. Here at First Unitarian we have awakened to the impact of injustices rooted in centuries of social hierarchies ascribing better-than and less-than status to people and creatures based on differing identities or attributes. The legacy of those injustices, and the ways in which they are perpetuated, come home through our own and our friends’ experiences every day. And the news—oh, the news confirms that all too often we are drifting or racing, apart.
So we worship leaders feel the hunger of the congregation: Can we humans understand each other across our differences? Can we figure out why and how we create a sense of “otherness”? Is this an immutable habit of human nature? And is there actually something to celebrate, rather than bemoan or dis, about being “other”?
Then, can we restore a common sense of citizenship (the root of civility) across all borders? Can we develop our capacity for real dialogue—that exchange of words among two or more people conversing, changing directions back and forth—so that we all really grow and change as a result?
Today, in March 2017, the chasms we sense almost a year ago seem even more apparent, more destructive, and perhaps less bridgeable.
But here’s the good news: we humans have the capacity for empathy. We can vicariously feel another’s thoughts, feelings, and experiences. Please note: like love, empathy is not a soft and squishy feel-good exercise. It takes courage, stamina, humility, and broken-openheartedness. It’s a muscle we must build. But empathy gives us a new place to stand in relation to each other. We don’t have to remain separate. We can bridge those chasms.
You see what we worship leaders did there? We took that long string of words—those aching hungers—and transformed them into one affirmation of what we can actually do and how we can really grow.
Are you ready, Beloved Community?
With vast readiness to be learning and growing with you once more,
Returning from sabbatical on March 15!
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