Come To The Table – The West Wing Sermons pt. 4

This story is not new.

There are two sides. Your side. And their side. Your side is right. Their side is wrong. You wonder to yourself why they believe what they believe. It just doesn’t make any sense. And it’s hard not to see them as monsters. What they stand for will make things worse for everyone. They have such an intractable and yet indefensible position. You can’t understand how any clear-headed person could see the world as they do. Obviously, they are not clear-headed. You feel you have to do whatever is necessary to do the right thing. No matter the cost. Of course, I’m talking about Kaecilius from Doctor Strange. By every stretch of the imagination, Kaecilius is a villain except in his own eyes. Mads Mikkelsen, who plays the character in the film, said that Kaecilius doesn’t see it that way. He told us at the press conference, “I always play all characters as a hero. I mean, I think we have to look at it that way. The key to any good villain… is that they have a point. It’s not completely crazy what they’re saying. There is a point. Even in Doctor Strange’s eyes he does believe I have a point. Even though it’s for a fraction (of a second), if that.” Everyone is the hero in their own story.

(L to R) Benedict Cumberbatch (Doctor Strange) and Rachel McAdams (Christine Palmer) listening to Mads Mikkelsen talking about his character Kaecilius
(L to R) Benedict Cumberbatch (Doctor Strange) and Rachel McAdams (Christine Palmer) listening to Mads Mikkelsen talking about his character Kaecilius

This perspective is important to keep in mind in the waning days of this long presidential season.

Everyone is the hero in their own story. In just two days, it will all be over (or at least we hope it will be). All of the lying, name calling, accusations, and bitter words will finally come to an endbetween not just the two candidates but their supporters as well will finally become “old news.” And hopefully so will the ill feelings. But likely that won’t be the case. Whoever wins will feel a sense of relief. A sense of victory. A sense that God was on their side. Whoever loses will feel depressed, defeated, and maybe even angry. They might feel that Satan himself was working hard against them. And that God’s will was not done. I don’t know about you, but this has me worried. I’m especially worried that if Donald Trump loses, some of his supporters, who have already said they would actively take up arms against the government, will back up their words with actions. I pray this isn’t so and those words like all the others are just empty air. But the fact that the tension in our country has become so palpable that we even have to worry about things like this makes it clear we need a time of healing. We need to find a way to bring people back to the table. We need a reminder that those on the other side have a reason for their beliefs. They aren’t simply evil. For the most part they are good people. Maybe they are misguided. Maybe they are giving in to irrational fears. Maybe they are seeing things from a skewed perspective. But they too are created by God and deserving of our love.

How we respond in the coming days will say a lot about who we are.

The key is to ask ourselves, “What would Jesus do?” The key is to ask ourselves, “What would Jesus do?” I know that sounds trite but we can’t go wrong when we model our life on Jesus Christ. If you have a Bible or a Bible app on your phone, please find John 11:35. John 11:35. This is literally the shortest verse in the Bible. If you know much about the history of the Bible itself, you know that there isn’t a uniform way the chapters and verses are assigned. Some verses are extremely long and some are extremely short, but this one is the shortest of all (although according to Wikipedia it is not the shortest when read in the original Greek).[1] I would love to know why whoever assigned the verses to John’s Gospel chose to include only these two words in this verse. Maybe it was because of the impact of this one moment in the life of Christ. Maybe because no more needed to be said. In just two words we understand so much about Jesus. His humanity, his love, and his empathy for all of us. Jesus wept.

But the whole story is much more than these two words.

Earlier, we find out Jesus knows Lazarus is sick but does nothing about it for TWO days. Because we know Jesus and what he can do, read this and might be a little shocked. After all, he was able to heal a centurion’s son from a long ways away without ever having to visit him (John 4), so it seems weird to us that Jesus wouldn’t do the same for this man he knows. But the disciples are glad. The last time Jesus went to Judea he was nearly stoned to death and they don’t want to see that happen again so they probably think Jesus is being prudent or cautious. But what he was really doing was waiting for an opportunity. He was waiting for a chance to help not only Lazarus to become well, but for all of his followers to know who he was – the Son of God. As he approaches the city, Lazarus’ sister Martha hears about Jesus’ arrival, comes up to him and says, “If you had been here, he would not have died.” Jesus comforts her and Martha returns to get their other sister Mary. When Mary finds Jesus, she falls to her feet crying and says the same thing Martha did, “If you had been here he would not have died.” Jesus finds himself surround by those who loved Lazarus, all crying out of grief and he can’t help but be moved, even though he already knows he will bring them great joy. He can feel their grief and understand their pain even if he knows that things will be better. And he weeps. Jesus doesn’t weep for Lazarus as all of his family and friends do. He weeps because he empathizes with them. Because he knows the hurt they feel inside. And even if he doesn’t share their perspective, he can still put himself in their shoes and know that their hurt is real. He could have said, “Just get over it! I said he would rise again!” But instead he takes the time to share their pain, to let them know he feels their loss. And then he does the miraculous and brings Lazarus back from the dead. It’s that empathy that we seem to be missing in our world today – that ability to put ourselves in someone else’s shoes and understand what they are feeling. We don’t have to agree with them. We don’t have to believe what they believe. But we can be empathic if we choose to be. It’s just that most of the time we don’t choose to be.

Empathy is on the decline.

In the past 37 years since its been measured, the number of people who scored at or above the average back in 1979 has dropped by 75%.[2] That means 75% of people today show less empathy than they did 37 years ago. 75%! And the problem seems to be getting worse. College students after the year 2000 showed 40% lower levels of empathy than their earlier counterparts. What was most stunning was that it wasn’t even hard to fake empathy on the study. The questions were so obvious that anyone who just wanted to SEEM like a nicer person could have easily scored high without even trying.[3] On the survey[4] you’re asked how well a statement describes you, and they give you statements like “I often have tender, concerned feelings for people less fortunate than me” or “When I see someone being taken advantage of, I feel kind of protective towards them.” An empathic person would of course highly identify with those statements. They are SO blatant that it doesn’t even seem to be worth asking and yet 40% of students could not even muster fake empathy. That’s how bad the situation has become. Not only are we less empathic, we can’t even pretend to be anymore.

Getting to be recess monitor at Emma's school back in 2nd grade - kids need free play to build relationships and empathy
Getting to be recess monitor at Emma’s school back in 2nd grade – kids need free play to build relationships and empathy

There are lots of hypotheses about why this is.

But the most telling to me and the one that seems consistent across these studies is what they call social isolation. Social isolation is what seems to be the leading cause of the empathy epidemic today. We don’t engage with one another anymore. Researchers found school children were consistently given less free time to play with one another by about 33% when comparing school schedules in 1981 to 2003.[5] With less time to interact, how can we learn how other people feel? And that bleeds into our adult lives, too. As adults we tend to live alone more often and are less likely to join groups, whether that’s the PTA or casual sports leagues.[6] And that means we have less understanding of how other people feel. They conducted a study about trust and found that lonely people were more likely to take advantage of other’s trust and cheat than those who were less lonely.[7] And we don’t even bother to read. I thought this one was weird when I first heard it, but researchers found that preschoolers who read more were better able to understand other people’s emotions. They also found that adults who read more fiction were more empathic than those who didn’t. There are so many factors that likely cause this behavior that it’s probably hard to pinpoint just one. But the statistics are revealing. We are less empathic than ever before.

A great book for kids... and adults if you like sweet, rhyming stories by Mo Willems. Who would have thought that reading would lead to greater empathy?
A great book for kids… and adults if you like sweet, rhyming stories by Mo Willems. Who would have thought that reading would lead to greater empathy?

The good news is that empathy is something that is both innate and learned.

Our capacity for empathy CAN grow, simply by trying.[8] By making an effort to be empathic, we can learn to walk in another person’s shoes, or at least grow closer to it. I read an article in TIME magazine that offered four simple ways to help increase your empathy.[9] 1. Stop and listen – take time to really listen to other people. Learn to reflect back how other people are feeling. It might seem silly, but believe me this works. It was an exercise we practiced when I became a Resident Assistant AND when I got my psych degree. 2. Ask your barista (or Subway sandwich person or Walmart store clerk) how their life is going. Just engaging other people connects you in different ways and helps you to see them not as stereotypes but as people. 3. Read a book. This one coincides with those studies we talked about earlier and is a great way to just engage with different thoughts and ideas. And 4. Look into people’s eyes. The eyes say a lot about a person and being willing to look in another person’s eyes, creates a connection and can help you to better understand them. It might also feel awkward, but that’s okay.

Everyone is the hero of their own story.

And I’m not saying you need to believe they are right, but simply that if we understand why people think the way they do, we can do something to make the world a better place. Studies have shown that empathic people make better doctors,[10] better leaders,[11] and I’m guessing people you would be more likely to hang out with. I’m also thinking that empathic people might be better equipped to lead others to Christ who are very different from themselves. Because the key to helping people find Jesus is to know where they are on the path and we can’t do that if we only see it from our point of view. We have to get better at seeing how other people see life.

One of my favorite episodes of The West Wing is about Ainsley Hayes.

Ainsley is a Republican lawyer and the Bartlet White House is Democratic. And Ainsley is very Republican. But President Bartlet decides he wants her on his staff. Despite the arguments from the rest of the staff, he decides that he needs to hear the opinions of people who think differently than him and he wants her to be part of the White House Council. Everyone is upset about it, even Ainsley who for her entire life wanted to work for the White House. But she gets a chance to see the White House in action and get to know the people working there. So when she meets some friends at a restaurant for dinner and they ask her, “Did you meet anyone there who wasn’t worthless?” She tells them, “Don’t say that. Say they’re smug and superior, say their approach to public policy makes you want to tear your hair out. Say they like high taxes and spending your money. Say they want to take your guns and open your borders, but don’t call them worthless. At least don’t do it in front of me. The people that I have met have been extraordinarily qualified, their intent is good, their commitment is true, they are righteous, and they are patriots. And I’m their lawyer.” That always gets me choked up. People are not as different as we sometimes make them out to be. We may have our differences ad sometimes those divides are deep, but we can all come to the table together and bring healing to our families, our communities, and our country. We just need to learn to stand in one another’s shoes. In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

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[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jesus_wept#cite_note-2

[2] https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/what-me-care/

[3] https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/born-love/201005/shocker-empathy-dropped-40-in-college-students-2000

[4] You can take the survey for yourself here: https://umichisr.qualtrics.com/jfe/form/SV_bCvraMmZBCcov52?SVID=

[5] https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/born-love/201005/shocker-empathy-dropped-40-in-college-students-2000

[6] https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/what-me-care/

[7] Ibid.

[8] http://www.nytimes.com/2015/07/12/opinion/sunday/empathy-is-actually-a-choice.html?_r=0

[9] http://time.com/3562863/5-ways-to-be-more-empathetic/   They actually offered five ways, but one was for the classroom and for young children only.

[10] http://healthaffairs.org/blog/2014/02/25/empathy-the-first-step-to-improving-health-outcomes/

[11] http://www.huffingtonpost.com/douglas-labier/why-humble-empathic-busin_b_6042196.html

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