Go toward, not away – Empathy

“We would rather push suffering away and pretend that the ubiquitous grief of the world has nothing to do with us, but if we do that we will remain confined in an inferior version of ourselves.”
– Karen Armstrong

Go toward, not away {lisanotes.com}

My natural reaction is to turn away.

I don’t want to feel someone else’s pain. Empathy hurts. Isn’t my own pain enough? Why voluntarily take on someone else’s misery if I can’t do anything about it? Why walk in their shoes?

Step 4 in my One Word 2014: Compassion is Empathy. It’s drawing on your imagination and your past to understand another’s suffering.

Karen Armstrong suggests it’s a skill we can learn and improve with practice. It doesn’t have to be big things; even one “small, concrete practical act of friendship” is important.

Jesus was empathetic. When he looked at people, he felt their pain.

“When he saw the crowds, he had compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd.”
Matthew 9:36

He walked into their aches instead of walking away. He stretched toward the lepers instead of holding them back. He cried with the grieving instead of slighting their sorrow.

Just like he’s done toward us.

Isn’t it because someone has walked with us in our pain that we must walk with others in theirs?

While we can’t heal supernaturally like Jesus did, we can lay down the shields we’ve erected to protect ourselves from their suffering; we can ask questions; we can hear answers; we can walk alongside.

  • Notice instead of ignore
  • Tune in instead of tune out
  • Head toward instead of go around

It’s still not what I want to do in the flesh.

But in the spirit—only by the Spirit—can I go toward, not away. 

* * *


How well do you wear others’ shoes? Please share.

The Twelve Steps to a Compassionate Life (Karen Armstrong):

  1. Learn about compassion
  2. Look at your own world
  3. Compassion for yourself
  4. Empathy
  5. Mindfulness
  6. Action
  7. How little we know
  8. How should we speak to one another?
  9. Concern for everybody
  10. Knowledge
  11. Recognition
  12. Love your enemies

26 thoughts on “Go toward, not away – Empathy

  1. Linda@Creekside

    Yes, yes, Lisa. The image captures your heart. You live what you write. And you take the time to take us there.

    And this said it all to me –
    ‘•Notice instead of ignore
    •Tune in instead of tune out
    •Head toward instead of go around’

    This offering is substantial for me. Thanks, my friend …

  2. floyd

    Powerful post, Lisa. Caring and doing something about it is our calling, why we’re here. Thanks for the powerful reminder. Never easy, but always gratifying to the soul where our Savior resides.

  3. tcavey

    Well said. We must go forward in the power and Spirit of God, otherwise we can be consumed by their pain. His shoulders are big enough to carry the pain of the world. It’s with His shoulders that we must help carry others pain.

    Great post.

  4. Joe Pote

    Oh, Lisa! This post is so good and so convicting.

    Yes, our natural reaction is to move away from pain we cannot help with…but we are called to move toward…to embrace…to share…

    And, somehow, God does use that sharing for healing. I can’t tell you how much it has meant, in some of my darker moments, just to have someone recognize my pain…to say, “Joe, you look so sad!” Pain and grief are so isolating, and it is so healing just to know we’re not alone.

    Thank you for sharing this!

  5. Jerralea

    As always, Lisa, your posts make me think.

    I loved this line: “He walked into their aches instead of walking away. ” I will be thinking on that one for quite some time.

    I am prone to tuning out instead of tuning in. Need to work on that!

  6. Jennifer Dougan

    Hi Lisa,

    I catch myself biting my lip emotionally sometimes, trying to bite back the tears or the sadness. Sometimes I notice I want to ward off the pain before it hits, trying to keep it clinical, as I learn about human trafficking or human predators. But I can’t, can I? As much as I hate hearing about the horrors of this broken world, I need to remind myself of it from time to time, and compel myself to action. And invite others to fight it too.

    Empathy is letting ourselves feel what others are experiencing, I think, and you’re right. We need to feel that pain too. Thanks for the reminder.

    Jennifer Dougan

  7. kel rohlf

    this past week we have been on the receiving end of empathy and to be frank it’s almost as difficult as offering empathy to others…strange, but now I have another level of empathy for those grieving…that it must be hard sometimes to accept the compassion of others…we lost my husband’s father and then my husband fell and severely broke his elbow, which needs surgery…people want to make us meals and care for us (which is a role reversal for us as we usually shepherd others) Just wanted to say it’s weird when the “shepherds” need to be cared for…thanks for this post, Lisa!

  8. Katie

    “He walked into their aches instead of walking away. He stretched toward the lepers instead of holding them back. He cried with the grieving instead of slighting their sorrow. Just like he’s done toward us.”

    I am so grateful he has done this toward me. I totally get listening with compassion, is hard sometimes, in my own strength. I am grateful you have listened to me with compassion. 🙂 Thank you friend.

  9. dawn

    I love that line J…about someone has walked with you. I so often think of how God has raised up specific people to walk through specific trials with me, and I remember how in that season they became faith preserver for me… just a hands and feet Jesus representative – yeah, it’s hard to look away when God has been so specific in sending another to me. I prayerfully seek being that one as God leads for another in need. Thanks, Lisa. Really love the way you said it.

  10. Jean Wise

    I would rather go away and stay in the good time, the mountaintop, the Easter moments than sit at the foot of the cross during Jesus’ suffering. Guess it is human nature? There is a great easy in the book, This I Believe – about always go to the funeral. Do the things you may not really want to do but do them because it is the right thing to do. That empathy too. Good post to contemplate, Lisa. Thanks

  11. lisha epperson

    Hi Lisa! I can totally relate to the natural inclination to avoid adding the pain of another to an already full plate. My first thought is always “Where will I put this?” and I don’t want to add to any burdens I already carry. But infertility changed that. I tell everyone that infertility taught me compassion. Since that particular battle I see people and their problems differently. Not that I can “do” anything to help but I can offer a shoulder, an encouraging word or none at all. In the really tough moments I think words really arent necessary – but our presence is. I don’t know the work of Karen Armstrong but thank you for the introduction. This was a beautiful reminder to dig in to the deeper experience of walking alongside those who hurt.

  12. David Rupert

    Interesting…”walking in their aches” is a really unique perspective that I’ll be chewing on.
    I need more empathy – compassion – love. It’s easy to be condescending these days, especially when things are going so well for me!

  13. Laura Connell

    Much truth in this post. Through my volunteer work I’ve learned that walking alongside makes a difference even if we can’t solve the problem. I think the flesh wants to avoid saying there’s nothing we can do, but walking alongside is something we can all do.

  14. laura

    These are such good words, Lisa. I’ve been wearing out Christa Wells’s new album, Feed Your Soul and on it she has a song that begins with these lines: “I’m afraid of the place where you suffer. Where you sit in the smoke and the burn… ” It goes on to describe how sitting with someone in their pain is a beautiful thing. Your post reminded me of that lovely song. A lesson that is hard to live out, for sure.

  15. Debbie

    It’s hard to truly understand unless you’ve walked in someone else’s shoes. I’ve heard this many times but I believe it’s true. It’s all too easy to judge another life from our own point of view. I joined in on this Faith Barista Jam and it was painful to do. But it helped me to write out a bit about my own journey which was painful but has become healing.

    Blessings and love,

  16. Melissa

    So true, Lisa. Our instinct is to walk away–isn’t that sad?–but it’s not what we should be doing. I had a small opportunity to do this yesterday. A friend told me that her sister has been suffering for years with the same medical condition I have. My story brought her hope. So my friend asked what medications have helped me. I was reluctant to share that, as that much information reveals more about my condition than I’ve revealed. But, in the hope of helping someone else, I made a list. I would have wanted someone to do that for me! I wouldn’t have done it, though, without a nudge from the Spirit.

  17. Mandy

    I love that you pointed out that Jesus showed empathy. It’s something that I hadn’t stopped to ponder deeply. I’ve just started reading some of Brene Brown’s work, and she notes that empathy reverses shame…so it makes sense that Jesus would exhibit such an important trait. Thanks, Lisa!

    1. LisaNotes Post author

      Isn’t Brene Brown wonderful? I’ve listened to a couple of her TED talks and read a book or two, but I need to read more. She’s good; her work on shame is much needed.

  18. Krista

    This spoke to my heart so much! The initial wanting to look the other way response…
    My best friend went through a season of cancer diagnosis, radiation, tests to make sure she was “clean” about a year ago. When she told me what was going on, I wanted to do anything I could to be there but, part of me shrunk back in fear. It took me a few days to grieve and wrap my head around what was going on. I felt guilty for not being there for her because she lives so far away but also because I wasn’t sure how to be there for her emotionally… I felt like I should know what to do but I was quickly sinking into the abyss. We talked and she shared her fears with me and I with her. She has since been given the all clear! 🙂
    Instead of shrinking back, I agree that I need to take your advice:
    “lay down the shields we’ve erected to protect ourselves from their suffering; we can ask questions; we can hear answers; we can walk alongside.” I couldn’t agree with you more. 🙂

    1. LisaNotes Post author

      I’m glad you and your friend were both able to talk about your fears. That’s a blessing and a growing experience. And how wonderful that she did receive the all clear! Praise God for that. I appreciate you sharing this story, Krista. Hearing these help all of us.

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