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Exercising empathy

Exercising empathy

In thirty minutes, I am going to care deeply for these strangers.

My wife and I are in the lovely, art-deco movie theater in our town, watching as the first of this year’s Oscar-nominated short documentaries comes up on the screen.  This initial film is about a deaf high-school football team.  Following that, we will be introduced to a man revisiting a bullying episode from elementary school; the struggles of a young, poor Afghani husband; and homelessness on the West Coast.

These stories – all beautifully told – have almost a magical power of engagement.  Except for my personal observations and interactions with the homeless in my travels, I knew nothing about these topics.  And I cared nothing – for the simple reason of my ignorance.

Empathy can be exhausting.  After a couple of these films, I wonder if I can start all over again on this roller-coaster ride of compassion.  But it’s good for me.  The process of listening, processing, and engaging one’s heart is easy to avoid in our self-focused age.

There is much in the New Testament about bearing burdens for others.  Two verses come to mind:

Be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love.  (Ephesians 4:2).  Bear one another's burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ. (Galatians 6:2)

As I sit in the darkened theater, I marvel at this powerful engine of concern with which God has endowed each of us.  And I recognize that gentleness and humility are the oil that lubricates its gears.  Thinking of oneself too highly (Rom. 12:3) -- promoting our time, our needs, our priorities over those of others – grinds our empathy to a halt.

I’m also aware that I have an easy out.  After this collection of stories have engaged my compassion, I can get up and leave them behind.  As some dear Christian friends of mine will tell you, it’s much harder to maintain that humility and gentleness when bearing long-term burdens for loved ones.

Jesus doesn’t seek a way out of his love for us.  His compassion and active concern are embedded in his very character.  He stands with us.  He deeply cares for the desperate, the outsider, the homeless.

And he’s made us his hands and feet of compassion until his Kingdom comes in its fullness.

The first step, though, is to feel something.  I’m thankful for the power of stories to awaken my heart.  It’s good practice.

Father of compassion, awaken us to the needs of others.  Not just so that we can applaud our own empathy, but that we would be activated – to pray, to get involved.  Share your unending empathy with us, Lord.

Reader: what recent movie or documentary recently awakened your empathy?

Email me at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.. And if you liked this, please use the buttons above to share it.

Bruce Van Patter

As a freelance illustrator, graphic recorder, and author, Bruce is on a lifelong journey to delight in the handiwork of the Creator. And he’s always ready for fellow travelers.

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