Charley. Frances. Ivan. And Jeanne. These are names we remember well. No, they’re not our grandchildren’s names. Or the names of family members. They were the 4 hurricanes that crisscrossed Florida in 2004 in what is known as “the year of the hurricane.”
We lived in Temple Terrace, a suburb of Tampa, at the time. So, we know the feelings our friends and family have been experiencing the past several days as hurricane Irma approached. The preparation. Stocking up on bottled water. Watching the news. The anticipation. Being without electricity. Staying home on Sunday since church services were canceled. Seeing the palm trees bend parallel to the ground. Watching the water flow down the street like a river. Hearing the wind howl. And praying.
Our word of the week is empathy.
Empathy is identifying and vicariously experiencing the thoughts and feelings of others. It is awareness, understanding, and sensitivity.
With our family, friends and so many brethren we know in Florida and especially the Tampa Bay area it is natural for us to feel incredible empathy for them during hurricane Irma. In fact, Norma Jean and I remarked how weird it felt. As we watched the various news updates, it was like being there. Again.
While the Bible doesn’t specifically use the word empathy, it does speak to our need to understand others. Their thoughts. Their needs. Their feelings. Husbands are commanded to “live with your wives in an understanding way” (1 Pet 3:7). To be sensitive to her feelings. Her emotional makeup. What makes her happy? Sad? Upset? What does she want and need?
Christians are also instructed, “to look out not only for his own interests but also for the interests of others” (Phil 2:3-4). That requires empathy. Along with insight, affinity, and appreciation for what others are going through. It involves an emotional connection. Mark Twain expressed it this way–“One learns people through the heart, not the eyes or the intellect.”
Empathy is a recognition of the deep seated desires of others and a responsiveness to their needs. Furthermore, empathy identifies with those we care about and have a filial affection for. We are “with them” in thought. Mind. Spirit. And emotion.
Empathy is seeing things from another person’s perspective. As Mary T. Lathrap expressed in her poem Judge Softly it is to “walk a mile in his moccasins.” However, an article in Psychology Today suggests that in American culture we may be “socializing people into becoming more individualistic rather than empathic.”
Empathy ultimately should motivate us to lend a helping hand to others. To “do good to all people, especially to those who belong to the family of believers” (Gal. 6:10). Not just to care, but to share. Our heart. Our hands. Our time. Our resources.
It takes empathy to genuinely, sincerely and fervently pray for the needs of others. It is, the ability, as someone on facebook said it, to “pray hard.”
When I awoke this morning at 4:00, I didn’t want to go back to bed. I got up. Made coffee. And quickly checked my phone for a text message. Turned on the TV for news from Tampa. Empathy.
So far, the reports from Tampa sounds good. There is a relief that our loved ones are well. Safe. And secure. For that, we are profoundly thankful.
But it occurs to me that empathy might be easier in the face of a threatening hurricane, especially when your children and grandchildren may be in harm’s way. Empathy is needed in life’s daily walk. For the common struggles that are the lot of humankind.
May God give us the spirit of empathy, not just in crucible of crisis, but in our daily interaction with our family, friends and fellow man.
–Ken Weliever, The Preacherman