A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Randy Hammer, September 28, 2014
Job 2:11-13 NLT
Some of us are old enough to remember that 1969 pop tune by the Hollies titled “He Ain’t Heavy, He’s My Brother.” Some of the lyrics go like this:
The road is long
With many a winding turn
That leads us to who knows where
Who knows when
But I’m strong
Strong enough to carry him
He ain’t heavy, he’s my brother
So on we go
His welfare is of my concern
No burden is he to bear
We’ll get there
For I know
He would not encumber me
He ain’t heavy, he’s my brother
I was reminded of this song when Suzanne, our Director of Education, shared a picture circulating on the Internet of two men on a subway. One was a Jewish man, Isaac Theil, wearing a Yarmulke. And the other was a black man wearing a hoodie. In the photograph, the black man has fallen asleep and is resting his head on the shoulder of the Jewish man, who does nothing to awaken him or push him away. Theil later explained, “there is only one reason that I didn’t move, and let him continue sleeping, and that has nothing to do with race. He was simply a human being who was exhausted, and I knew it and happened to be there and have a big shoulder to offer him.” When we went back to the Internet to search the story again, after I had already titled and started this sermon, one of the links showed the picture with the caption, “He ain’t heavy, he’s my brother.” J At least one word that would describe both the popular song and the picture is empathy—identification with and understanding of another’s situation, feelings, and motives.
We see some wonderful stories of empathy in the Bible. One of the classic passages in the Bible having to do with human empathy is, undoubtedly, Jesus’ Parable of the Good Samaritan found in Luke’s gospel. Most of us know that parable by heart, how the despised Samaritan empathized with the fallen and beaten Jewish man by the side of the road, and in compassion ran to him, tended to his wounds, hoisted him upon his own donkey, and carried him to an inn and paid for his care.
In the Old Testament, or Hebrew scriptures, one of the classic examples of human empathy is the passage I read from the book of Job. Job’s three friends, upon hearing of all the disaster that had befallen him, traveled to Job in order to comfort and console him. Now initially, Job’s three friends showed true human empathy and compassion and got it right. “When they saw Job from a distance . . . Wailing loudly, they tore their robes and threw dust into the air over their heads to show their grief.” And here is the really good part: “Then they sat on the ground with him for seven days and nights. No one said a word to Job, for they saw that his suffering was too great for words” (Job 2:11, 12-13 NLT). To reiterate, Job’s friends got off on the right foot. In the beginning, they did well. But then it was all downhill from there. In other words, after their initial encounter with Job, they said and did all the wrong things. Job’s friends blew it when they broke their silence and dominated the conversation with their much talking, self-righteous condemnation and judgment, blame-placing, and citing the reasons for all his troubles.
Empathy is such an important human attribute. But sometimes in trying to be empathetic, if we aren’t careful, we can blow it (as did the friends of Job) by doing and saying all the wrong things. Some of us may have memories of when we were going through a very difficult time; maybe we were suffering some painful or potentially life-threatening illness. Or maybe someone close to us had died. Or maybe we had suffered the breakup of a significant relationship. And those close to us, in trying to be a help or empathize with us, said something that didn’t help, but only made us feel worse. We might admit we have been the recipient of such misguided empathy. And if we were to be truthful, we might also have to admit that we have also been the source of misguided or unhelpful attempts at empathy. When someone close to us is suffering, we feel that we should say or do something to help make things better, to solve the problem and make everything all right. In our haste, we may not always say or do that which is most helpful.
So, what is true empathy? What does it look like? How do we genuinely show empathy to someone?
- Empathy is seeking to put ourselves in the place of another. To try to feel what they are feeling, experience what they are experiencing, see life from their perspective. It is to “walk a mile in someone else’s shoes.” To empathize with another is to ask ourselves, “If I were in the situation that Person X is in, what would I be thinking, feeling, experiencing? What would my immediate, practical needs be?”
- To empathize is to identify with another in our common humanity. As such, true empathy crosses gender, racial, political, and religious lines, as in the case of the Good Samaritan and in the case of the two men on the subway. As actress Meryl Streep said, “The greatest gift of human beings is that we have the power of empathy.”
- To empathize is NOT to have all the answers, give a reason or cause of another’s troubles, or offer a solution that will make everything all right. In being empathic, instead of doing most of the talking and providing solutions to another’s suffering, we do better to mostly listen and ask questions, the right kind of questions; questions such as, “What are you feeling? What practical thing can I do to help you?”
- To empathize is NOT to utter shallow clichés or platitudes that can do more harm than good. Things that people sometimes say following a death such as “He is in a better place,” or “At least you had him X number of years,” or “God never puts more on us than we can bear,” or “We cannot question God’s will,” or “God needed an angel,” generally speaking are not helpful and may do more harm than good.
- To empathize is NOT to say “I know exactly how you feel,” unless, of course, you have been in the exact same situation and you do know exactly how someone feels. But even then, when we have been in a similar situation, the other person’s life experience, social support group, resources, worldview, and so on are different from our own. So can we really ever say, “I know exactly how you feel”? Now, I will say this: Whenever I encounter someone who is suffering extreme back pain because of a back problem and/or severe sciatic pain, I will often say, “I can empathize with you,” because I can. But for me to say, “I know exactly how you feel” would be quite presumptuous on my part, because I have no idea what is going on in that person’s head.
- To empathize is NOT to spend time talking about your own past pain or suffering. It is to focus on the person you are empathizing with and his or her pain and suffering.
Returning to that popular song, the concluding words go:
If I’m laden at all
I’m laden with sadness
That everyone’s heart
Isn’t filled with the gladness
Of love for one another
It’s a long, long road
From which there is no return
While we’re on the way to there
Why not share
And the load
Doesn’t weigh me down at all
He ain’t heavy, he’s my brother
He’s my brother
He ain’t heavy, he’s my brother…
The late Maya Angelou stated, “I think we all have empathy. We may not have enough courage to display it.” Maybe we do need courage—the courage demonstrated by the Good Samaritan—to show our empathy to others, especially those who are different from us. Should that be the case, then may our prayer be this: “God, grant me the wisdom, and God grant me the courage, to empathize with the pain and suffering of others, even as I want others to empathize with me. Amen.”