VIEW VIDEO When I applied for seminary, I had to undergo psychological testing to discern my mental fitness for ministry. This was in 1988, when Chris Gautier’s grandmother, Dr. Sue Cardwell, did the psychological evaluations for Christian Theological Seminary. She is now 103 years old and still sharp as a tack, as she was then, a warm and brilliant woman. But still no match for the twisted psychosis that is Philip Gulley, so I was able to persuade her I was fit for ministry by answering the Myers-Briggs personality test questions as I thought a pastor should. It now seems ironic that I would fib on a test determining my suitability for ministry, but then life is absurd, is it not?
The test was sent away to be scored, then I met again with Dr. Cardwell, who told me the test indicated my personality was well-suited for ministry but warned me I had to guard against burn-out because the test revealed a tendency to care too much, that I would take on the pain and suffering of others too readily and eventually become exhausted. She told me I was an empath, the first time I had ever heard that word. I nodded my head modestly, acknowledging this tragic flaw in my personality. Then she checked the box that said I was psychologically fit to enter seminary, and ten years later, almost to the date, I resigned from my church, exhausted from taking on the pain and suffering of others too readily.
We’ve been talking about the habits of wholeness, those behaviors and traits we must cultivate in order to be healthy and whole. We mentioned balance, giving each aspect of life its proper weight, place and priority, lest we lose our sense of equilibrium and fall. Then we added patience, the calm acceptance that things can happen in a different order than the one you have in mind. Last week, we mentioned forgiveness, which we defined as the conscious, deliberate decision to release feelings of resentment or vengeance toward a person or group who has harmed you, regardless of whether they deserve your pardon.
Today, I want to add another habit to our list, and that is the habit of empathy, which the Palestinian writer Mohsin Hamid defines as “finding echoes of another person in yourself.” Empathy is our ability to be aware of the sorrows and joys of another being. When we share our joys and concerns each Sunday, that is an exercise in empathy. We are being asked to identify with another, to enter their joys and sorrows, so that the self becomes a “we,” and “us.” We know someone is exercising empathy when they refer to others as “us” and not “them.”
Think for a moment of those stories about Jesus you most appreciate, those stories that move and inspire you the most. What do they all have in common? Aren’t they all stories about Jesus recognizing the suffering of someone else and entering their suffering in order to transform it to joy?
As our nation is plagued by the killing of black people by law enforcement, isn’t it abundantly clear that some of those we’ve entrusted with badges and guns are unable to empathize with the struggle of being black in a nation of white privilege. Isn’t it clear the suffering of black Americans has been so pervasive, many white Americans can’t begin to understand their pain and have no desire to acknowledge it? Sadly, just as our nation desperately needs empathy, too many Americans aren’t willing to cultivate it. I was flipping through radio stations the other day and heard a radio host say America stopped being a racist nation in 1863 when Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation. The host’s website describes her as “feisty,” which is inaccurate. She is clueless, which makes empathy impossible, since awareness is essential to empathy. We can not sympathize with those in pain without first being aware of their pain.
Like any good thing, too much empathy can be crippling. We’ve all known people who’ve immersed themselves so deeply in the suffering of others, who’ve absorbed the pain of others so completely, they are eventually crippled by the very pain they were hoping to alleviate. Therefore, whole and healthy people cultivate the habit of balance, another habit of wholeness we’ve discussed earlier. This explains why Jesus, after engaging and healing and teaching and consoling, often went away to a quiet place. Solitude and quiet are not the opposites of empathy, they are the sustainers of it.
I’ve often thought that if Quakers have a role in this world it is serve as voices for those who have no voice, to wield our power for those who have no power. One of the leading lights of Quakerism, Elizabeth Fry, visited the Newgate Prison in 1812 where she discovered women and children lying in filth, naked, and starving. She returned the next day with food and clothing, and not just that day but many days after, badgering English officials to reform the British justice system, keeping at the task decade after decade until needed reforms took place. That done, she opened a school to train nurses.
In this nation, the Quaker Jim Corbett, an Arizona rancher, began the Sanctuary Movement to assist refugees fleeing U.S. sanctioned wars in El Salvador and Guatemala. Arrested for violating U.S. immigration laws, he kept at it, enlisting over 500 congregations across the United States to help thousands of refugees find freedom and safety in the United States, laboring four decades until his death in 2001.
Not many people outside of Quakerism know anything at all about Elizabeth Fry or Jim Corbett, but now that you have been made aware, perhaps you, like them, can cultivate the habit of empathy, so that years from now your memory is treasured by those whose salty tears you tasted, then wiped away.