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Choose Empathy Over Dismissal

I recently had a random memory return to mind. It was a conversation that happened a decade ago, with a person I haven’t seen since. He was a congregant at a church I ministered at. Though he was more than twice my age and we had little in common, we often exchanged pleasantries. One Sunday morning he arrived visibly distressed. He took care of his elderly father, who also attended our church, and I was concerned there might be something going on with his father. When I asked him if he was okay, the words tumbled out fast and furious, his voice growing louder as he talked. He explained he’d been replacing the windows on his house on his own, how he’d had to order expensive custom windows, and how he’d waited and waited for them to arrive. He’d spent days installing the new windows and he was almost done. But as he'd unwrapped the final window to install it Saturday evening, he’d bumped it, and the glass had cracked. He was angry and upset and ashamed. His hands made fists as he yelled, seemingly at himself.

As he told his story, I was feeling a range of emotions as well. I was relieved that his elderly father was okay and not the cause of his distress. I was confused about why he was telling me such a long story about home remodeling. And I was late to head into the worship service, so I was trying to physically cue him that I needed to run—and I felt frustrated that he wasn’t catching on.

When he was done telling his story, I quickly responded: “Oh no! I hope it’s a quick fix!” I thought this statement would create a quick fix for me, too, effectively wrapping up our conversation so I could head into the next room. To my surprise, however, it only angered him more.

“It’s not a quick fix!” he yelled. “The window is unusable. They are custom windows! They’re expensive! They take weeks to arrive! And the old window is already out. What am I going to do?”

I was bewildered. I kept thinking, I’m not sure what he wants me to say. There’s nothing I can do.

“I’m sure you’ll figure something out,” I offered cheerfully, as I walked away.

Wincing at the Past

As our exchange crossed my mind, I felt a different range of emotions: embarrassment, sadness, and regret. I realize now that what he wanted me to do, what he needed me to do. He wanted me to listen, to simply acknowledge that it was a terrible situation, to empathize with him, and to hold space for his frustration, anger, and sadness. I could have said, “I’m so sorry to hear that! That sounds so frustrating.” I could have acknowledged that I knew it would be hard to focus on the sermon while he was thinking about the situation at home, and how frustrating that would be. I could have even, knowing I needed to be somewhere else, said, “I’m so sorry! I want to talk to you more about this after service. Can I meet you back here to hear more?”

Instead, I wasn't listening well. I'd made it about me: me knowing how to respond, me not understanding what was wrong, me being late. And in so doing, I dismissed his feelings. I dismissed his frustration and sadness and anger. I dismissed the level of distress he must have been feeling to share it with me. I dismissed his reaching out. I dismissed him.

I effectively communicated: Your feelings aren’t valid. The things that frustrate you aren’t a big deal. You’re not important.

I look around our world today and see so many people being told these exact same messages. We dismiss one another because we don’t understand. Because we don’t have time or don’t want to be bothered about that topic. Because we have different experiences. Because we’re uncomfortable with our own emotions and we can’t deal with yours. Because seeing things from your perspective might disrupt my identity. Because we’re isolated and lonely and sad and scared, but anger is a lot easier to allow ourselves to feel. Because it’s easier to place blame on anyone and everyone else rather than look at our own hearts.

A decade ago, when I had this conversation, I was learning how to listen well and how to sit with others in their pain, grief, anger, and sadness. I didn’t have those skills yet. But after going through my own seasons of deep pain, grief, anger, and sadness, I’m better equipped today. It doesn't have to take personal trauma, though, to learn how to listen well. We can all learn with some humility and practice. It's important soul care work.

During this strange season, so many of us are hurting. We’re feeling anxious and sad and angry and scared. We need to see each other’s pain, empathize, and hold space for it. Rather than dismiss one another, let’s choose to validate one another, reminding each other that we are made in the image of God and we are worthy of love and connection. Let’s model our responses after the God who cries with us in our grief, sits with us in our pain, and comforts us in our distress.

And if you find yourself, like me, wincing at the way you've interacted with someone in the distant (or recent) past, sit with those feelings and allow them to propel you toward growth. How might you respond today in that situation? What could you do or say to truly see the other person, empathize, and hold space for whatever they're feeling?

.Amy Jackson is director of The Perch. Learn more about Amy here

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