Empathy, any chaplain will tell you, is one of the greatest tools of providing spiritual care. And it is a tricky tool to master. The Merriam-Webster dictionary has two definitions for empathy, but the one I am looking at reads, “The action of understanding, being aware of, being sensitive to, and vicariously experiencing the feelings, thoughts, and experience of another of either the past or present without having the feelings, thoughts, and experience fully communicated in an objectively explicit manner.” In other words, empathy is the attempt to walk a mile in another’s shoes.
As Director of Spiritual Care, I go to churches and train people who want to be Lay Ministers and Spiritual Care Volunteers in Houston-area hospitals. These training sessions are two-fold, which you can read about on our training page. But to save you that trip, let me explain that the first training is a 9-hour didactic session held in the church. During this first session, AnneMarie and I do our best to go over the basic rules of a spiritual care visit as well as some of the tips. Empathy is the most difficult thing to understand without experience.
Just a couple of weeks ago, we trained thirty-one new volunteers. As we went through our manual, I covered the topic of empathy vs. sympathy. In our manual, there is a picture of a girl who is covered in mud, with a an upset expression on her face holding a puppy, also covered in mud. When we approach this picture, the trainees are asked, “What do you want to do with this girl?”
Over time, AnneMarie has found the most natural answer to be, “Clean her off!” in some form or another. And we – AnneMarie and myself – acknowledge it and say, “Of course. She is very dirty. It does look like she could need a bath. But what if she does not want a bath? What if she is upset because her mother just told her to come inside and clean off and she is not ready to do so?”
This changes the conversation every time. Because if the girl does not want to get clean, then why should we want her to be clean? What about her feelings and desires? What about her intentions for the rest of the day? Why should they be ignored?
And this is a basic way to explain empathy. Empathy starts with listening to the other person in the conversation. What do they want? What does that person need? What are they feeling in this moment? How can we validate those feelings without dictating what we think they need?
When I did my unite of Clinical Pastoral Education (CPE) – a training course for chaplaincy in hospitals – at Memorial Hermann – Southwest, I had a hard time grasping what empathy meant. For whatever reason, I needed a definition, but could not come up with one. It was not until the end of that 11-week unit that I really understood what empathy meant. For me, it was finding a situation in which I could relate to the other person, without verbalizing it. If the patient was experiencing incredible pain, I tried to remember a time I felt incredible pain. If the patient was missing their animal, I thought about how much I wanted to be on the couch with my cat snuggling on me. If the person was experiencing the loss of a loved one, I remembered when someone dear to me died. The key is to never verbalize the remembered experience, but simply to sit in those emotions with the person in the room. I just remembered how complicated my emotions were at those times and let them sit in theirs.
Perhaps the best example of empathy in the Bible comes from the Gospel of John, chapter 11, verse 8: “Jesus began to weep,” (NRSV).
We see in the verses just before this event, Jesus arrives after Lazarus’s death. And he is approached by Mary and the people who had come with her weeping, causing him to weep. To be clear, Lazarus was Jesus’ friend, but it was not Lazarus’s death that caused Christ to weep. It was the weeping of others. He related to the crowds around him, causing him to be in their shoes. Jesus wept because he felt the pain of others.
Empathy helps a chaplain sit with people in all sorts of incredible positions. It allows the chaplain to walk with the person through the fog of it all – without guiding. Empathy helps to understand what the person really needs and how they could get to where they are going. Empathy helps chaplains care for the other person the way Christ cared for those he loved. Empathy is one of the greatest bridges for all human interaction.
Let us pray together:
We find it difficult to sit with other people in their pain. We find it a challenge to relate to others without giving advice or talking over them. Help us to be quiet in the storm. Help us to sit with one another as we move through incredible events. God, we ask you to guide our feet, our minds, and our hearts so we may be more like Christ, feeling the pain of others, knowing what they feel. As we care for others, give us your wisdom, mercy, and love.
It is in Christ’s name we pray. Amen.
Cameron, Director of Spiritual Care