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[July 2020] Pastoral Message: Empathy

EMPATHY… This is the first big word I learned in college when I took my first core class as a psychology major. According to Merriam-Webster, empathy is defined as “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.”[1]

Initially, I wondered whether empathy was the same thing as sympathy but I quickly learned that the two words have different meanings. Simply put, empathy is the ability to understand what the other person is going through, whereas sympathy is feeling sorry for someone’s suffering. The picture below captures the essence of empathy and sympathy.

To this day, I still remember how the instructor said that if anyone of us wanted to make it in the world of counseling, we needed to learn to empathize rather than sympathize, because when you are sympathetic, you put your understanding above the other, creating an uneven power dynamic in relationships. Then, most often you won’t be able to connect with the person seeking help, leaving them feeling more helpless and even shameful.

Empathy, on the other hand, is the coveted skill to have as a counselor since it shows one’s ability to speak from a shared experience of distress, allowing the suffering one to feel understood. Walt Whitman put it so wonderfully in his 1855 poem, “Song of Myself,” where he said, “I do not ask a wounded person how he feels, I myself become the wounded person, My hurt turns livid upon me as I lean on a cane and observe.”[2] Instead of separating yourself from those who are hurting, you become one with them by crying with them and hurting with them as if their pain were your own.

As I watched our superficial[3] world fall apart in the wake of George Floyd’s killing, I have heard many voices crying out, “Why can’t we just get along?” Surely the world would be a better place if everyone “got along” and were friendly and loving towards one another. However, humans are complex beings and when we are faced with the unfamiliar, we usually become judgmental and fearful.

Although the United States is blessed with diversity compared to other nations, not everyone in this country is exposed to cultural, ethnic, and racial diversity in their daily lives. When I used to live in Texas, a Korean-American sophomore from Baylor University told me about her encounter with an Anglo freshman from Kansas who claimed to have never met a single Asian. Then she proceeded to ask that Korean-American woman, “Are YOU Asian?”

I’m also reminded of an incident in high school when my sister and I moved back to California from Texas. While we were busily readjusting to California, one of my Korean-American friends that I have known since seventh-grade approached me and said, “I saw Moonyoung hanging out with some black girls. What’s going on?” Bewildered that my friend would ask such a question as if a Korean girl cannot be friends with black girls, I responded with, “Why not?”

I wonder if, in some ways, people are largely monoculture and unavoidably ethnocentric, because it’s comfortable to surround ourselves with people of the same background, culture, ethnicity, and language. We don’t need to explain what we eat, wear, say, or do. Of course, the problem with this is that it can set up a “us versus them” mentality and that our cluster is better than others.

Unfortunately, I don’t have a solution as to how everyone in the world can be culturally competent so that there is no more fear or judgment placed on the unfamiliar. It may take decades, if not centuries before it can happen. However, in our current setting, I believe we can begin the work toward anti-racism by learning to empathize. As the old saying goes, “put yourself in someone else’s shoes.” This means removing our own shoes (our bias, prejudice, assumptions) and recognizing other’s perspectives, experiences, and pain.

I recently discovered a new provoking story about Jane Elliott, an anti-racism activist that I admire:

She had said to an auditorium full of people “I want every white person in this room who would be happy to be treated as this society, in general, treats our citizens – our black citizens – if you, as a white person, would be happy to receive the same treatment that our black citizens do in this society, please stand.” Unsurprisingly, no one moves. She pauses. “You didn’t understand the directions. If you white folks want to be treated the way blacks are, in this society, stand.” More marked silence and lack of movement. She continues, “Nobody’s standing here. That says very plainly that you know what’s happening. You know you don’t want it for you. I want to know why you’re so willing to accept it or to allow it to happen for others.”[4]

Friends, racism is a sin. We can’t just watch from the sidelines when our Black brothers and sisters are hurting. We shouldn’t just sympathize with their misery and anguish but learn to empathize with their experiences of racism. Once we truly understand their grief, then we can practice the command of Jesus from Matthew, “In everything do to others as you would have them do to you; for this is the law and the prophets” (Matthew 7:12, NRSV).


Rev. Sunyoung Lee

[1] [2] [3] I’ve used the word “superficial” to indicate that the world was still internally marred with racism, while the external, the superficial world narrated by the “majority” carried itself as if racism was the thing of the past. [4]

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