Tag Archives: empathy

100. Empathy summary

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I hope you all had a splendid Easter!

We spent Lent looking at one imperative aspect of seeing, which is empathy. I don’t know about you, but I learnt a lot. In turning the tables and looking at an issue or characteristic from the other “side” with compassion as my watchword, I found that it is possible to understand how we all rationalise our own thought patterns and behaviours as morally correct, or at least, justifiable.

Sometimes the different way of thinking from our own has just come about as someone chose a path that branched off from ours somewhere along the line. Or they had an experience that changed their direction, or influenced their view of what is right or wrong. Or they found that they were motivated by something that I was not, or vice versa. Whatever we choose, whatever ethical lines we define ourselves by, we need to firmly believe either that we are the ones who are right, or that we are the ones playing the game well, or, if we are doing something we know is morally questionable, that we are powerless. In other words, we persuade ourselves that we are good, clever, or victims of the rules/culture.

Jesus’ words “They know not what they do,” are crucial. Most of the people who are seeking to feel at peace about feeling or doing something that is not wholesome, use various arguments to sustain their way of life. Most prevalent is, “if I weren’t doing this, someone else would be (and not as well or as kindly as I do)”. And, almost as often, “everyone is doing it, therefore it’s okay”. In some very real ways, we really don’t know that what we are doing has any hurtful repercussions.

One of the hardest things in writing these pieces was beginning with my own voice and not coming back to it after the section of empathy. To let the view that was different from my own have the last word was difficult, but I felt, necessary. To sandwich the other between my own opinion would have stolen its power. I needed to let that person’s voice stand unchallenged. This is maybe what real listening looks like, or holding space. We may not agree, but we can defend the right to be heard.

And then we ended with my looking at a few of my own traits with empathy. This was really helpful, and I’m glad I did it. I feel now that it will be easier to look candidly at my own character in prayer, and to balance that honesty with self-compassion.

So empathy is a hugely important way of seeing. If we cannot empathise with the other outside of ourselves, we will never really be able to contemplate in any worthwhile way.

“Could a greater miracle take place than for us to look through each other’s eyes for an instant?”

~ Henry David Thoreau


p.s. for a great illustration of empathy, which, like mine is fictional, but nevertheless powerful, do read Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte. The section on Jane’s childhood is phenomenally empathetic, both towards her childhood self, and those who do her wrong.

text © Keren Dibbens-Wyatt 2017 photo from Pixabay (back to mine from tomorrow I hope!)

99. Sensitive (Empathy, Lent 40)

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It was a very long time before I discovered there was a kind of person called an empath, who took on board other people’s emotions, often bodily. It was also a very long time before I found the term HSP (Highly Sensitive Person). Both these terms have helped me to have a deeper understanding and compassion on the way that I am. Before this validation, I always felt I was odd, stupid, too sensitive and emotional, ridiculous even. But now I know that there are lots of others like me who are attuned to feelings and emotional atmosphere, to the crack of heartbreak in the air, to the words not spoken, to the fear in a look or an almost unseen tremble, who cry easily and painfully for their own wounds and those of others. HSP validation has helped me with who I am in Christ. And this gift (for such it is) has helped me to be a better writer and artist, a better poet, and I hope, a better lover of God. For empathy, love and understanding are linked to creativity and imagination.

Easter Saturday is a good day to indulge those gifts and those tears, and imagine myself sitting in the garden outside Jesus’ tomb, or with the women who loved him, or with the men who had been scattered, each one confused and grieving. The knowledge they will have tomorrow is ours but not yet theirs, and sometimes empathy asks us to sit in the garden with those who do not yet know what we do, and feel their pain.

text © Keren Dibbens-Wyatt 2017, photo from Pixabay

N.B.  I’ll be having a day of rest for Easter Sunday. On Monday we’ll be looking back at what we’ve learnt about empathy over the Lenten period, and then we’ll be going back to contemplative photography to go with learning about different ways of seeing.  Happy Easter!

98. Passion (Empathy, Lent 39)

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I’m a passionate soul. If I feel strongly about something I’ll most likely throw myself into it wholeheartedly. This sometimes means I don’t think things through and I run the risk of looking an idiot or getting hurt. The biggest passion in my life is for God. I love him with everything I’ve got. When I was a young Christian I looked an idiot quite a lot. I thought I needed to evangelise everywhere I went and probably bored or just plain embarrassed people. I let God down horribly and had trouble forgiving myself (even though he forgave me in less than a heartbeat). I spouted stupid things I’d been taught as truth for a long time, I was easily led and thought my elders in the church knew what they were doing, and followed their, sometimes equally misplaced, passions.

After decades of sickness, my passion for God is deeper and stronger than it has ever been, and I still say and do stupid things. But the heart of my passion has become wider, more rooted in beauty, creation and prayer. Silence and solitude are the mainstays of my prayer life. Adoring and gratitude are my worship, living a life of prayerful weakness is my evangelism. My earlier exuberance I can have compassion upon. I know that it hasn’t disappeared, just been transformed, much as a thoughtless teenager has become a contemplative middle aged woman. Passion can take many forms, as can the other sort of passion, sharing in the sufferings of Christ. And maybe the more we focus on the cross, as we do today, the more we can be compassionate on our own intense emotions.

text © Keren Dibbens-Wyatt 2017 Photo from Pixabay

97. Cowardice (Empathy, Lent 38)

cowardly lion

Today is the day everyone except the women fled from Jesus. Today is the day that he was kissed by a dear friend in betrayal. Today is the day to admit to cowardice, because the best of the best are capable of it. And so, I turn to my own cowardice, which has many facets, and look on it with compassion. I am terrified of getting it wrong and of public speaking, and of great white sharks (and small white sharks, if I’m honest) and yet all that fear does is stand in the way of things.

Yet, fear is a perfectly natural thing to feel. Standing up in front of lots of people, all waiting for you to say something, is terrifying to someone like me who hates being the centre of attention. So, I’m guessing fear and cowardice are not the same thing. What then, is my cowardice, the thing that makes me flee from what I should be doing? The obstacle that turns my stomach to water for selfish, no-good reasons? That would more likely be the voice that says, “Don’t do that for them, they wouldn’t do it for you” or “If you listen to them today they’ll always expect it,” or “If you say that thing you know is true, they will all think you a fool.” So, maybe it makes sense to run (or swim) away from some things, even if it is to save the fight for a better day, as we could argue the male disciples did, but when we are running from the best of ourselves, or the truth, especially God’s truth, or from something that we know is the right thing but will cost us, that is real cowardice. It is hard to have compassion on that, but perhaps we are better off acknowledging our faults and weaknesses, and asking God into them, rather than berating ourselves or blaming and shaming ourselves for our failures.

Perhaps the real price of cowardice is paid when we refuse to look at the unseemly parts of ourselves, so that change cannot happen. Only when we can be compassionate with our own shadows can we be truly merciful with the perceived faults of others.

text © Keren Dibbens-Wyatt 2017 photo from memecrunch.com

96. Passive Aggressive (Empathy, Lent 37)

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I remember a counsellor during my divorce mentioning almost casually that I was passive aggressive. I was stunned and really hurt. This is one trait that people seem to really loathe in others, was I really doing that? Well, maybe. But looking at this with self-compassion I can see that for me (and maybe for many people) when it did occur, it was a self-defence mechanism. I couldn’t come out and say what I actually wanted to, for fear of confrontation or of being emotionally or physically hurt. So the comeback came indirectly. And then this becomes a habit, especially when we are living with fear, that is hard to break.

I have worked really hard with God over many years to try to be far more honest with those around me about my hurts and grievances. It has been very tough for me, as I was trampled emotionally for many years. I didn’t even realise that my pain was seeping out of the cracks in this way. So now when I twig that other people are doing this, my first instinct is to have compassion, and try to help them say what they really want to about what they really want to, when they do, rather than feeling they need to go all around the houses and back again. Because another thing that self-compassion has taught me on this one, is that it is an exhausting way to go about things!

text © Keren Dibbens-Wyatt 2017 photo from Pixabay

95. Analytical (Empathy, Lent 36)

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I am terribly logical and analytical. One of my best subjects at uni was key criticism. I can pick a hole in an argument from a hundred yards away. I played Mr Spock in our sixth form review. But I know that it can seem annoyingly pedantic to others. I sometimes catch myself correcting people (this often annoys me more than it annoys them – I cringe). Or I explain why what they are saying is based on a false premise, and get that look, or that Facebook response. You know. I can be the class boffin. And yes, this is related to the intelligence I bared my soul to you about yesterday. But maybe my self-compassion here is warranted too, because there is a lot of ragged, lazy thinking out there, and so I hope these skills are useful, especially in Christian circles, where proof-texting and shoddy logic is rife. Fortunately, my logic is not cold, and sits very happily with my figurative, story-telling side. I love using both in my reading of Scripture. Realising how well those two parts of myself team up, I’m really pleased I decided to have empathy with myself on this character trait now. I had started to wonder, in this opinion-driven age, if it were an anachronism. I feel better now. Thanks.

text © Keren Dibbens-Wyatt 2017

94. Intelligence (Empathy, Lent 35)

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I’ve always been very bright. It has, at times, been a quality that has made me feel very visible, or even odd, and certainly frustrated. I struggled to understand why other people couldn’t grasp what I was saying, was horribly bored at school, and found myself trying to think of shorter words for things (especially with boyfriends, who did not seem to like my brains very much).

Although it is a wonderful thing to have, it also made me seem older than I was and people would assume I was emotionally mature as well as intellectually clever, when actually this was not the case. And just because I was clever didn’t mean I was practical. I could write a great essay on physics, but fail to get the back off a plug.* Perhaps the worst thing of all was that cleverness became the one thing I could rely on, my one gift, the source of any and all pride. So when after university I got terribly ill and succumbed to brain fog, barely able to put two words together, unable to read or decipher signs, I struggled with my identity. Who was this daft, slow, mixed up aphasic? Well, she was me too.

And when I began to recover my clarity for short periods, and then God presented me with the task of writing, what should I begin to lean on again but my intelligence? It was bound to happen, and having had to live without it for so long I wasn’t going to give it up very easily. And yet, that is exactly what God asked me to do. I had to give him my one specialty. He didn’t want, it seemed, for me to write plots with more smarts than Billy, or to dream of the Booker Prize. He wanted me to write from the heart. I remember a prayer time vividly, where I had to hand my brains over. I metaphorically watched them crack off from me, the way ice falls from a glacier, and saw them drift off on a flow of water.

And because I did that, because I gave them up and let them go like he’d asked me too, he returned them to me. But just as it is when we give him our hearts, and they return renewed, so my intelligence seemed changed. It had an entirely new focus and character. It was like my cleverness was not about me anymore. Not about making me look good, or feel superior, or special, nor any of the things it had, perhaps understandably, meant to me before. Now it was like my mind was living for God as well as my heart. I feel much happier, more integrated about this. When I use my intelligence now, it is to aid my readers understand my meaning. If I use a big word, it’s because (and only because) it is the right word to use.

I look compassionately on my school girl self, desperate for praise and trying to scramble to stay at the top of the heap in something (Lord knows it was never going to be P.E.) with her big brains that didn’t know what to do with her or where to take her. She was only doing what the world told her she should. And the me of now can have compassion on my current self as well, especially when I am misunderstood, or folk think I am being wordy or precious. It’s okay to use my God-given brain, and it’s especially okay to use that God-given, given-back-to-God, God-re-given brain, for the things he had planned all along.

* This endearing (to others) and infuriating (to me) trait continues. I just had to ask my (also very bright) husband to help me take a new camera case off its cardboard mount. Failure took me ten minutes, success for him, five seconds.

text © Keren Dibbens-Wyatt 2017 temporary photo copyright Oliver Postgate/BBC

92. Apologetic (Empathy, Lent 34)

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For this last week of Lent I want to take a slightly different tack and explore how to have a little more empathy with myself. I’m going to look with kindness at qualities I have that I’m not that comfortable with, or that get in the way of compassion and growth.

I’m always saying sorry. I am one of those people who, if you bump into me, will apologise profusely. Or at least, I used to be. Recently, I think because of the support of my very loving husband, I’ve started to stick up for myself a bit more. But constantly apologising is a rather English habit, and even more ingrained in those of us who grew up dreading being told off.

Sometimes it is easier to take the blame for something than to run the risk of causing any kind of conflict. It can be a placatory gesture too, and those of us who do it imagine that other people find us more agreeable and pleasant because of it, whereas in actual fact, they are more likely to think us foolish, or to gauge us as easy to take advantage of.

I used to think it was Christian to be like this, but now I think that there is a big difference between being conciliatory and being a doormat. We are all learning new things, and perhaps it is good to be patient with ourselves as well as with others, as we round those curves.

text © Keren Dibbens-Wyatt 2017 (photo from Amazon)

91. Banker (Empathy, Lent 32)

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I am one of those left-wing liberals that like to rail about justice and equality. But as you know I feel challenged to look at the world with different eyes for a while. Let’s take a topical example. Supposing, as I stand and shout on social media with the No DAPL protestors, vehement in my beliefs that clean water and safeguarding the environment is more important than rich shareholders taking home yet more cash, that I turn the tables in that outrage, and am placed in the shoes of the CEO of a bank who are deeply invested in that pipeline. How might I feel?

I’ve been employed to run a profitable business. My priority is to keep the stockholders happy and keep my job. I cannot allow myself to ponder the rights and wrongs of the actual investment. If I did that with every dollar I’d never be able to get anywhere! I’ve been trained to see that as my emotions interfering with my work. I am good at making tough decisions and holding on through difficulties. This is how I earned both my place and the respect of my peers. I want to stay at the top. If I resigned over it, or lost my job taking a stand, someone else would be put in my place who would do the right thing by the investors anyway. I’d have lost my position and endangered the security of my co-workers and family for nothing.

There is no point, in any case, worrying about the environment, because everyone around me tells me that the scientists are wrong, that the protestors are just whining, that there is no real cause for alarm, that the earth can look after itself, and I am also, knowing myself to be canny, investing in renewable energy as well as fossil fuels, though perhaps with less enthusiasm. If that starts to get anywhere, my bank and I will be right behind that too. These things have a way of working out. Necessity is the mother of invention and all that.

text © Keren Dibbens-Wyatt 2017 photo from Pixabay

(This piece contains part of an article published on Godspace. You can read it here.)

90. Beater (Empathy, Lent 31)

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I’m totally anti-hunting. I hate all blood sports with a passion. I don’t think enjoying killing things is a healthy way to be. But even on this, are there two sides? Is there another way of looking at it through different eyes to mine? As a vegetarian of course, the argument changes, but how might meat eaters who help with the shooting of grouse, pheasant and other game birds justify what they do?

It is better to kill and eat birds this way than to rear them in a barn all squashed in so tight they can’t even move. I guess the shooters and the dogs certainly enjoy themselves, and the birds don’t really suffer, not like those supermarket chickens. People who criticise are happy to point the finger but don’t think it through. This is an old and noble profession, people have always hunted and nothing goes to waste. This is how the land works, how the countryside makes its way. Such is life.

text © Keren Dibbens-Wyatt 2017 photo from Pixabay