Supposedly, to truly understand another person, one must walk in that person’s shoes. We often hear this expression whenever someone is experiencing hard times. Walking in another person’s shoes helps us practice empathy by seeking to understand the situation from that person’s viewpoint rather than from a quick judgment of the person’s circumstance.
Between Thanksgiving and Christmas, my family volunteers with the Salvation Army’s Red Kettle Campaign. Over the past ten years, we have spent hours ringing the bell outside storefronts and inside store vestibules. Some years, we gave candy canes to children who dropped money through the red kettle’s slot. Other years, we brought our dog, Daffy, to help us ring the bell. Each year, we have reflected on how it might feel to ask strangers for help in a season of hardship. At the red kettle, we have always experienced God’s compassionate ways in the world.
One year, my husband and I, along with a group of young adults, rang the Salvation Army bell at the ABC store. Before my husband and others arrived, I stood outside with a young man. Between customers, we rang the bell and talked about life. I remember him glancing into the store windows and watching the clerk ring up the patrons’ purchases. He looked at me and said, “Not too long ago, you would have found me inside that liquor store with the clerk ringing up my purchases. But things are different now,” he said with a smile. “This year, I am grateful to be standing outside the store ringing a bell instead.”
The young man did not pass judgment that night, but rather he greeted each customer with a smile as they entered the store and wished everyone a merry Christmas when they left.
Serving others is one of the best ways to practice empathy. As one person, we cannot go through every experience to understand a person’s pain or hurt. Yet, empathy is the ability to step into another’s shoes, see their pain, understand the cause of it, and love them through it.
Often, we better understand the power of empathy when we are on the margins ourselves. The person who notices our hardship, steps into our shoes, and sees from our viewpoint humbles us. But empathy does not stop there; it continues with the person who advocates for a solution to our pain and amplifies our voice among the chaos. In moments like this, we become grateful witnesses of empathy’s courageous compassion in the world.
In Philippians 2:1-4, Paul encouraged the Church of Philippi to be of the same mind of Christ and have the same love of Christ, doing nothing from selfish ambition but looking to the interests of others. The fourth verse of this chapter highlights empathy. My favorite reading of Philippians 2:4 comes from “The Message” version of scripture which says, “Forget yourselves long enough to lend a helping hand.”
When someone else is enduring pain and suffering, we must forget about our problems long enough to address their needs. Whenever we clear our minds of ourselves, we can think and care for one another.
In profound compassion, God sent Jesus to walk in our shoes and empathize with our weaknesses. Jesus met people in their suffering and listened to their pain. He did not ignore them; he joined them. He wept alongside them and healed them.
Loving God and neighbor well moves us toward a person’s brokenness, messiness, and pain. Throughout the Gospels, Jesus taught that love takes time, grows in relationships, and focuses more on being than doing. In her book, “Loving Well in a Broken World, Discover the Hidden Power of Empathy,” Lauren Casper writes, “Empathy is a journey, and love is the destination, and the span of our lives is the time it takes to get from here to there.”
This weekend, take a simple step in mission. Consider walking in someone else’s shoes this holiday season by ringing a bell outside on a cold winter’s night, listening to understand rather than listening to respond, and by holding someone’s hand through their pain. These simple yet profound practices will strengthen our empathetic muscles and help us love well in a hurting world.
Rev. April H. Cranford