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Friday, May 31, 2013

Empathy: Brokenness Sojourning Near Brokenness.

Over the last number of months God has made me aware of a deep wisdom. He's kindly let me see that when people are their most human they've let their brokenness sojourn empathetically with the brokenness of someone else, staying near physically or emotionally to gently and respectfully comfort, encourage, and heal. They've drawn and stayed alongside of someone else's heartache, sin or shame to lend a compassionate ear or hold out a lifting hand. Such people do so until others heal, strengthen, and get back on their feet.

I like this definition of empathy: the ability to see oneself in another’s place and understand the other’s feelings, desires, ideas, and actions. The operative words for me are imagine and understand and other. Experiencing your own painful brokenness enables you to come near another's wretched messiness because you know what it feels to be lost, alone, overwhelmed and ashamed. I used the word sojourn to capture the idea of staying in place, abiding for the time that is needed. Empathy comes near, even if haltingly at first, but it watches and listens at the level of the heart for find the human connection which acts like a bridge to the other heart. There is freedom in empathy because we lower your well-used defensiveness to help bear the burden of another who bleeds and cries like we do sometimes. We see a person rather than as a stranger or, worse, an enemy.

I know for many of us it feels counter-intuitive to see our brokenness can build a bridge to someone else's. Brokenness is failure and shameful, maddeningly so. Am I not supposed to be cleaned up before I should even try to wipe the blood, sweat, and tears off you? I'm positive I'll be no expert for your pain or fear. Plus my brokenness is dirty and ugly. Being broken is not an asset or a tool. It's to be locked away. I have a persona to protect and a dignity to preserve.

When we are at our least humane (marked or motivated by concern with the alleviation of suffering:) we instinctively distance ourselves from human brokenness: ours and theirs. Leave the mess to someone else better qualified or who has the time. Distancing can also be locating ourselves above the human condition, thinking thoughts like: "well, I'd never do that, or "I'm not like him," or, "Sure, I'm not perfect, but at least I don't [fill in the blank]." Pride hates brokenness so it puffs up and papers over reality from a distance. When we indict the brokenness in other people, we lose humane sight and empathy shrivels. Pride is also a deceiver of the first order, an enemy of the heart, really. Accepted brokenness confounds and deflates pride. That's good.

I think empathy is most humane when it sojourns near brokenness of another because it knows the loneliness of unyielding brokenness which fills a person with shame and fear. Someone who's come to grips with his or her existential brokenness learns to defuse the corrosive heart cancer of shame because brokenness is the human condition. No one escapes it. And such a person sees parasitic fear for what it is, a sleight-of-hand charlatan that requires a willing participant; one who'll agree with only one way of looking at a threat or a problem, and accepting immediately it's going to turn out bad.

But when I let my brokenness come near that of another without judgment or lame platitudes, I offer them the freedom to drop their guard and accept help. And if I stick around beyond the initial helping something miraculous takes place: the person I help loosens a grip on self-sufficiency, opens to grace, and learns the freedom of being given what they need with no strings attached. Both the giver and the receiver display a kind of nakedness here. No pretense or illusion of self-sufficiency pervades this transaction. I'm coming near you as I am, or you're coming near me as you are; no one is superior. No one has it together; there is just connecting in the place of brokenness and need. This time it's your turn to receive.

The real deal is to stick with it when brokenness is not healed, or relieved in a reasonable amount of time in the other. I've had varying degrees of success with this. The good news is I've been made aware of my limits when it comes to sojourning with someone else's brokenness. There are limits, although I think most of us abandon the helping well before we have nothing left to give. In my work I've had a few folks with whom I could see no way to go any further with them. I had nothing left to give including my frayed brokenness. I was empty and rattled. Sojourning would have left me seriously wounded and in danger of deepening my brokenness too far. So I see a boundary. Each time was painful and they've been a small percentage of all the folks I've sojourned with. I wish the percentage was zero. Not in this world.

If you're reading this I'd like you to do some soul-searching and see where your limits of empathy are. Look to see if you have short limits and why. Ask God to show you.When he does, ask him to help you extend the boundaries so the wisdom and grace you've learned from your brokenness can sojourn with others more deeply when the Spirit picks you to get involved. Also, where do you refuse to let folks see your brokenness so they have little awareness of your need for them to come in close. where do you live in the illusion of self-sufficiency? Where is pride your guide in this illusion? 

A sober understanding of our brokenness is a reality to be explored and gift softening the human heart and creating the possibility of empathy in us. people who learn to let their brokenness sojourn with the brokenness of others discover an uncommon freedom.
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