Empathy

‘the noblest pleasure is the joy of understanding’ – Leonardo da Vinci

 

Last week, I found myself at church in Colorado Springs.  It was like nothing I’d ever seen before.  Growing up in New Hampshire, I have a certain expectation of what ‘church’ is, and what it looks like.  It usually takes place in a formal ‘chapel like’ building…with a steeple and stained glass.  But this church wasn’t that.  I’d characterize it as very modern as a facility, and more progressive as a religious institution.  Upon entering the massive lobby, I was introduced to a bunch of gathering areas with attractive seating, an open concept fireplace, touch-screen sign in stations, a cafe, and an aesthetic that seemed to call more for a space for community and sharing, than a strict setting for receiving a sermon.

Now, I would call myself a non-believer…and still feel that way after visiting this beautiful church.  Why did I go?  My daughter and I took the trip to Colorado from New Hampshire to visit my cousin and her family.  Knowing how significant the church is within their lives, and how passionate my cousin is about being part of it, I really wanted to try to understand what it was all about.  I wanted to learn from an institution that I’m now pretty removed from…that I don’t necessarily believe in.  I wanted to practice empathy.

em•pa•thy – the ability to understand and share the feelings of another.

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All too often, we think negatively about the other side of the isle.  We ruminate on the differences between us.  We wonder how someone could be so shallow in thinking in a particular manner.  But progress and benefit comes from finding alignment, seeking out similarities, and respecting one’s position.

The church service began with an amazing band, playing rock/pop type music with a religious message within the lyrics.  Those lyrics were displayed on two huge screens on either side of the band, along with a video of the performance…so you could follow along with the song.  The band was amazing.  After that, there was a guest speaker visiting from another church, filling in for the pastor.  His message was so smart…so relevant to my world, and so easy to grasp onto…even by me (a non-believer)…and even though God and Jesus were central to the sermon.  I could sift the information, and gather the valuable pieces for myself.  I could understand how others could be so faithful here.  I could practice empathy.

This practice of empathy can seem warm and fuzzy, mostly reserved for vegetarians and yoga instructors.  And in some ways it is.  It’s choosing to lead with love as the intention.  It’s honestly taking another person’s feelings into consideration, and honoring and respecting those as you exchange words.  It’s forgiving and welcoming instead of judging.  Do you try to do that?  When was the last time you were truly empathetic to someone with opposite values of your own?  On the other hand though, this practice is very practical.  It’s a win-win for both sides.  It allows for necessary changes within society to more efficiently take place.  And it provides us with a broader perspective…one that leads to a more rich and fulfilling life.

I left the church with a newly found respect for my cousin and her family, on top of the love I already had.  I felt so lucky to share this experience with them, and that they welcomed me so warmly to a sacred part of their lives…without even knowing my thoughts on spirituality or religion.  And I felt really positive about a community that thinks differently than me…knowing that they are practicing something so worthy, and that their doing it just so right.

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When I was 21, I was working at a local car dealership, detailing cars that were traded in when customers purchased a new one.  I had worked there with my best friend for the past 2 or 3 years…basically since high school.  My friend found a gun in one of the cars.  He told me about it, and took it home.  Within a week or two, my friend committed suicide with that gun.

Since then, as you can imagine, I’ve had very negative connotations associated with guns.  I was never really interested in them to begin with…and this situation, being my first real connection to a hand gun, immediately deterred me from becoming comfortable with them.

You see, from my perspective, as naive as this may sound to you, my friend was dealing with something that made him unhappy for some time.  And he was ‘living’ with that.  When a gun was introduced to his environment, things quickly changed.  It seemed to me that had he not found a gun, he’d still be living.  I know, I know… he may have found another way.  But try to understand how it felt to me…try to feel it…practice empathy for me if you can.

Now, many years removed from that situation, I’m still not interested in guns.  I’m definitely not as sensitive to it as I once was.  I just don’t care to have one.  And part of that decision was certainly shaped by that early experience that I had.  Recently though, I’ve had great conversations with two guys that love guns.  They both seemed to believe in owning guns for sport, as well as for a way to protect themselves…their homes…their families.  And instead of focusing on how dangerous that could be, or wondering why they feel they need some of the weapons they have, or telling them why my perspective is more valid in today’s world…I listened.  I gave my best effort to respecting their values…their reasons.  I provided an opportunity for them to voice why they accept that owning guns is effective and significant.  I practiced empathy.

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I hope that by going to church…that by talking guns…I, in some small way made others feel positive about their position.  I know that by doing both, I felt more positive about my own.  Not ‘positive’ as in all-knowing and never swaying…’positive’ as in good…healthy…happy.  When we practice empathy, we expose ourselves and others to the fact that the world is full of vastly diverse perspectives.  We open ourselves up to the multitude of possibilities and opportunities.  And regardless of how small we move the needle, we make the world a better place.

Thank you so much for your time,

Jimmy Thorpe

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