Empathy

empathy2Three short verses that paint quite a picture.  “There was a rich man who dressed in purple garments and fine linen and dined sumptuously each day. And lying at his door was a poor man named Lazarus, covered with sores, who would gladly have eaten his fill of the scraps that fell from the rich man’s table. Dogs even used to come and lick his sores.”  Three short verses that have been captured in artwork across the ages. Three short verses have enough vividness to conjure an image in our own mind’s eye.  Can you conjure the image for yourself? “There was a rich man who dressed in purple garments and fine linen and dined sumptuously each day. And lying at his door was a poor man named Lazarus, covered with sores, who would gladly have eaten his fill of the scraps that fell from the rich man’s table. Dogs even used to come and lick his sores.”  What part of the imagery draws your mind’s eye? Is it the rich man?  Does he look smug? Happy? Oblivious?  Unaware? Occupied with more weighty matters?

Do you focus on the poor man?  Just how poor did you make him? Is he clothed? Are the clothes tattered? To the edge of nakedness? How have you posed  him “laying at his door”? What expression is carried on his face? Is he desperate? Lonely? Resolute? Distraught?  Hopeful? Resigned to fate?

Are there others in your mind’s portrait? A person passing by who is working to avoid eye contact? Someone too preoccupied with the next task of the day to notice? Another whose face expresses shock, disgust, or uneasiness? Perhaps someone coming to the poor man’s aid? Can you paint yourself into the portrait? Where would you be? What expression would you wear?

The ability of someone to go from spectator of art to move into the painting to begin to feel, imagine, connect, understand, envision, or identify with the scene… there is a person who has empathy.

Empathy is that ability to imagine oneself in another’s place, to connect with or understand the other’s feelings, desires, ideas, and actions. The empathic (or empathetic) actor or singer is one who genuinely feels the part he or she is performing. The empathic person is the one who can be drawn into the depth of the life of another.

Many have said that the rich man’s sin that condemns him to his fiery fate is that he never even notices the poor man.  Perhaps, …although he does seem to know Lazarus’ name when it suits his purpose. I would suggest the sin writ large is that the rich man lacks empathy.

It is this lack of empathy which makes him blind and deaf to the presence of Lazarus, unaware of the dignity that God gave Lazarus. Makes him blind and deaf to the words of the prophet Amos and all the prophets who proclaim the measure of anyone of us, the measure of all of us is the manner in which we treat the widow, the orphan, the poor, the alien, and the stranger among us. It is the lack of empathy which is the disease affecting the rich man’s heart, that condemns him to his fiery fate.

Is it the disease we each carry in our own hearts? Is it the disease which keeps us deaf and blind to those around us in everyday life.  Is it that which keeps us spectator? Spectator when there are people whose life calls out to us, for us to enter into their life, if but for a moment, for a touch, a smile, a word, being the presence of Christ in that single moment. To be empathic is to be a conduit of the love of God into the world, to be for one moment the light of Christ in the world.

The Cleveland Clinic has a wonderful video on Youtube about empathy. If I could show it in place of this homily I surely would. There is no spoken word.  There are simply single moments of people at the hospital – moments that call us to be aware, to connect – even if only silently in prayer.

  • The man entering the hospital dreading his appointment… fearing he has waited too long
  • Another, his wife’s surgery was successful… and he is going home to rest
  • He just discovered he is going to be dad
  • A women sitting with an IV drip, a thousand mile stare…. On day 29 waiting for a new heart
  • A couple in the cafeteria, their son on life support
  • He just heard the news that his tumor is benign
  • A woman too shocked to understand her treatment options
  • A mom and daughter heading down the hall…. She is going to see her dad for the last time
  • Cancer free for seven years
  • Waiting for a consult. … they saw “something” on her mammogram
  • Going home from surgery … pain free for the first time in years

These are single moments of life during a day in a hospital. It could have been your home, your place of work, play or any single moment of life during your day. Moments that call us to connect – even if only silently in prayer; to connect in the home, the workplace, high school, at a friend’s house, on a date, texting on your cell phone, video chatting, posting on your social network – everywhere you encounter people.

We are busy.  We are on a schedule. Time is limited. Our patience is stretched. We are preoccupied. God calls us to be none of those things.  We are called to love God and our neighbor. We are called to the empathic life in grace. To be mindful of people whose life calls out to us, to enter into their life, if but for a moment, for a touch, a smile, a tear, a word, being the presence of Christ in that single moment.

This is the start of how we love God and our neighbors as our self.

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