Entering into Someone’s World of Suffering and Sadness

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In this article in our series The Gift of Empathy, Michael Chen tells of how a near-mugging woke him to the needs of the people in the city, moving him from keeping a comfortable distance from societal issues toward experiencing the reality of Christ's presence in the people of that place.

It was getting cold in Boston. It was December, and the days were getting shorter and shorter. I was waiting for my bus to go home after my internship working in a rough part of town. I glanced over my shoulder and noticed a man walking straight toward me. His pace increased, and he jumped me. I felt the adrenaline in my body break me free as he grasped awkwardly at my shoulders.

He scoffed, "So you want to play tough, huh?"

There I stood in a moment of sheer vulnerability not of my own choosing, face to face with a young man probably around my age at the time—about twenty years old. In the moment, I regretted my decision to oppose him, for surely he had a weapon and would use it on me.

So I asked him directly, "What do you want?"

It was a simple question, asked out of deathly fear. I could not anticipate what happened next.

He started weeping.

He told me that he needed money to buy his niece a Christmas present. My body relaxed as his aggressive posture subsided into sobs. I opened my wallet and gave him the little cash that I had. I told him that God loves him. He told me that he would pay me back and ran off into the park nearby.

Relieved and grateful for my life, I realized that I had been invited into someone's world of suffering and sadness. I felt more alive in that moment than I had in a long time.

Living Life at a Safe Distance

During that semester as a college student, I had begun to gravitate toward urban living. From the mix of cultural faces on public transportation to the dazzling displays of art and architecture to the panoply of cheap ethnic foods, living in the city felt adventurous. However, all my life I had kept my distance from life in the difficult real world of uneasy tensions and ruptured relationships. Whether this was a self-protective measure learned at an early age living as an Asian in a majority white Midwestern suburb or a predisposition to abstract ideas and concepts or just innate introversion, I can't say with resolute clarity. But I know that it was not what God wanted from me.

The evening that I was mugged that began to shift. I began to feel something deeply for the people who struggled to live in the city. During my time in Boston, I became interested in learning about urban poverty and socioeconomic injustice.

It took this encounter for me to be fully present to the reality of Christ's presence in the place to which he called me. Nothing that I learned in books or lectures could bring me to a place of knowing the city like the tears of a young man appealing for help for a family member. God's tearful image was right in front of me. I was brought near enough to touch this young man's wound and share something of myself in a very intimate moment.

Our Empathizing God Moves Us toward Empathy

I don't wish that anyone would be physically jumped from behind or verbally threatened, but I am beginning to see that sometimes God has to sneak up on us to get past all our self-protective measures—our intellect, our money, our words, and even our sense of decorum. We work very hard to maintain our boundaries and stay detached from the world. It’s easier to stand at a critical distance and offer analysis and deconstruct the world of relationships, political systems, and organizations.

How can we reimagine our participation in the complexities of the world, whether on a small scale, like listening to those suffering in a failing marriage, or on a large scale, like engaging with the issue of a broken justice system? The movement to draw near to people at any level requires the gift of empathy.

It is a gift from God and makes us more deeply Christ-like, when we are able to move beyond simply offering our best technical solutions toward offering ourselves. Empathy is when we cultivate the capacity to offer our very selves, wherein we draw near to one another not through common interest or in the excitement of ideas but in moments of shared lamentation that change us deeply.

The gift of entering into another's pain, loneliness, and longing for wholeness is a journey that often requires that we have experienced firsthand the desperation of living on the margins. When the apostle Paul says that he rejoices in sufferings, I imagine it is really for the sake of knowing a deep interdependence with the people of God. This is not masochism, but a call to embrace shared suffering. In a heart-breaking yet redemptive way, this illuminates to us the very heart of the God who has come near to us in Jesus Christ.

As we grow in empathy, our hope is that, in this shared life of waiting and weeping together, we might be a balm to a world that needs to know the nearness of God.

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