Come to the Table

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.  Surely, they know that, and yet they so stubbornly refuse to do what’s right!  How could 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 make it right.  No matter the cost.  Of course, I’m talking about Kaecilius from the Marvel movie Doctor Strange.  Who else did you think I was talking about?  By every stretch of the imagination, Kaecilius is a villain except in his own eyes.  He murders.  He steals.  He ignores all the warnings.  But Kaecilius doesn’t see it that way. Mads Mikkelsen who portrayed the character in the film said, “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…” Or doing apparently. 

Marvel’s DOCTOR STRANGE..Doctor Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch)..Photo Credit: Film Frame ..©2016 Marvel. All Rights Reserved.

Everyone is the hero in their own story. 

As we come to a close to one of the most contentious political elections in our country’s history, we would do well to keep this in mind.  The “other” side, regardless of who that is to you, is convinced they are the hero of their own story.  So it’s not likely they will come to their senses, realize they’ve been wrong the whole time, and beg for forgiveness.  As nice as that would be, one side is going to feel TRIUMPHANT and the other depressed and defeated (and maybe somewhat angry).  If they are Christian, the winners will feel like God was on their side and the losers will feel as if Satan was involved.  Mostly I’m worried about the possibility of violence.  Donald Trump and his campaign calling for his supporters to become an “army” of poll watchers makes me worried we are devolving into the very totalitarian societies we have always abhorred.[1]  These are the kinds of tactics we would see in Russia or China, the very “socialist” regimes the President is constantly accusing his opponents to be.  Just the very word he uses – “army” – suggests physical violence to any who oppose him.  So if he loses and claims a rigged election what will happen next?  That we have to even entertain that notion in this country is itself a testimony to how divided we are and how badly we need to bring people back to the table.  We need to remind ourselves we are all Children of God. 

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

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).[2]  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 you have to know the whole story to understand why these two words have such an impact.

Earlier, we find out Jesus knows his friend Lazarus is sick but does nothing about it for TWO days. Seems surprising since he was able to heal a centurion’s son without ever visiting him or even knowing him (John 4), so the question kind of hangs out there, “Why wouldn’t Jesus do the same for this man who is a close friend?”  Now, the disciples don’t find it weird at all.  They’re glad Jesus doesn’t go.  The last time Jesus went to Judea where Lazarus lived, Jesus was nearly stoned to death so they figure he’s playing it safe.  But instead Jesus is taking this moment to reveal his human side, the side that journeys with his friends in both their joy and their sorry.  By the time they leave, Lazarus has died.  When Jesus does arrive in Judea, Lazarus’ sister Martha 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 surrounded by those who loved Lazarus, all crying out of grief and he can’t help but be moved.  He shares their pain and their sorrow even as he knows what is about to happen.  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.  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 ability to put ourselves in someone else’s shoes and feel what they feel we seem to be missing in our world today. We don’t have to agree with them.  We don’t have to believe what they believe.  But empathy is a key ingredient in bridging the divide between people.  And more importantly, empathy is a choice. 

Sadly, empathy is on the decline.

You probably don’t need any scientific evidence to see that.  Just follow the antics of our current administration to see the hatred, name-calling, slander that comes out of their mouths to see empathy is not welcome in 2020.  Researchers did a study about 10 years ago where they looked at empathy over a period of 30 years and found the measure of empathy dropped by 75%.[3]  That means 75% of people showed less empathy than they did just 30 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 they couldn’t even fake empathy on the study. The questions were so obvious that anyone who just wanted to SEEM like a nice person could have scored high without even trying.[4]  On the survey[5] 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 blatantly obvious what you should answer, you might wonder why they even ask it, 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. 

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 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 by about 33%.[6]  With less time to interact, we don’t build the tools necessary to place ourselves in someone else’s shoes.  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.[7]  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.[8]  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.  And with all of us having to stay at home more, not being able to interact, with kids having to stay home from school, those opportunities are lost. 

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

Our capacity for empathy CAN grow, simply by trying.[9]  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.[10]  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. Take a moment to relate to people one-on-one.  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.  Books open us up to new perspectives and new ways of looking at things. 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,[11] better leaders,[12] and I’m guessing people you want to be around.  Empathy also better equips us to reach out in love to those around us, to show the love of Christ to a hurting world.  Without empathy, we are less likely to even want to reach out or lend a helping hand.  And the world needs that more than ever right now.  We are not as different as we sometimes make each other out to be.  If we can’t build bridges between us, the divide will only get wider.  That doesn’t mean compromise, it just means don’t demonize those who are different than us.  As we approach the election, let it be with a prayerful heart.  Let us pray for people to vote safely and securely.  Let us pray that whatever the outcome there won’t be violence in the streets.  And pray we can restore our nation to be the bastion of democracy we have always hoped to be.  In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.


[1] https://www.usatoday.com/story/news/politics/elections/2020/10/14/2020-election-trump-army-poll-watchers-stirs-fears-violence/5908264002/ 

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

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

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

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

[6] When comparing schedules from 1981 to 2003. https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/born-love/201005/shocker-empathy-dropped-40-in-college-students-2000

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

[8] Ibid. 

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

[10] 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.

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

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

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