The Work of Empathy – That is Loving

Boundaries are important. My body seems to be bad at boundaries. My ligaments and tendons are too loose, and particularly at my joints they don’t hold my muscles where they should be. This means my joints can hyperextend or bend in the opposite direction more than they’re meant to. This could easily lead to more serious injuries, but mostly just means extra aches and pains as muscles stretch out and bones aren’t kept in place. It’s probably not possible to know whether its all genetics or some other external conditions, but one way or another it seems this is how I was born. I am having to learn how to force my body to re-learn and maintain its boundaries in hopes of not crippling as I age.

Emotional boundaries seem very interconnected and similar to me. We need boundaries to help us know where our emotions stop and another person’s begin. Without these boundaries we can bend and sway too far into another person’s emotional world and anxiety mounts as we take responsibility for things that are not ours to control.

And yet the other end of the spectrum is also unbalanced and unhelpful.  Too sturdy boundaries that leave no room for movement also cause pain as well as loneliness and isolation by keeping oneself so removed from the emotions of the people around us that we are rigidly unable to connect and let people affect us.

For me this is all connects to what it really means to love our neighbor (which I like to think of as love for all our fellow God-made humans). This is a kind of love full of empathy. Empathy can be defined as “the ability to understand and share the feelings of another.” Synonyms for empathy include understanding of, feel fellowship with, togetherness or closeness. An antonym is distance. And that is a nice succinct definition which might make it sound easy to do, but empathy is hard.  Real, heart-changing, life-altering, empathy hurts.

To me this real and deep empathy is what is being talked about in Divine Love and Wisdom number 47. I’ve added some italics to the passage, emphasizing the the parts that I read as talking about empathy.

“The hallmark of love is not loving ourselves but loving others and being united to them through love. The hallmark of love is also being loved by others because this is how we are united. Truly, the essence of all love is to be found in union, in the life of love that we call joy, delight, pleasure, sweetness, blessedness, contentment, and happiness. 

The essence of love is that what is ours should belong to someone else. Feeling the joy of someone else as joy within ourselves, that is loving. Feeling our joy in others, though, and not theirs in ourselves is not loving. That is loving ourselves, while the former is loving our neighbor. These two kinds of love are exact opposites. True, they both unite us; and it does not seem as though loving what belongs to us, or loving ourselves in the other, is divisive. Yet it is so divisive that to the extent that we love others in this way we later harbor hatred for them. Step by step our union with them dissolves, and the love becomes hatred of corresponding intensity.”

This passage is beautiful and inspiring, but it doesn’t paint a simple pretty picture. It is clear: to really love someone we need to feel what they are feeling as if we are feeling it ourselves.  THAT is empathy. While the passage specifically mentions the more positive things that come with this real and deep love, I think one of the reasons that loving other people is so complicated is that those enjoyable emotions can’t exist without their opposite. We can’t really feel someone else’s joy as joy in ourselves unless we have also felt their sorrow as sorrow in ourselves. To understand and feel a person’s joy, as they belt out their favourite song with gusto, you have to know that that joy comes from appreciation of their healthy lungs, clear for the first time in weeks after pneumonia. Without the dark, the light is less meaningful. 

But to feel all those feelings is exhausting. We need to navigate and find the appropriate boundaries keeping us from bending so far that we break as we strive to care for those around us. 

But the more I read about love in the Bible and in the Writings, and the more I learn and understand about emotions and empathy, the more I feel that this complex and painful love IS the love we are supposed to be striving for.  That real, Christ-like love of other people, sometimes especially the people who feel the most foreign, the most strange, and the most unfamiliar, that is the love changes and reforms us.  

To know someone and strive to love them as they are and where they are challenges us and forces us to grow. People will do things we disagree with.  Sometimes it’s small, like a child making a mess where we’ve just cleaned.  Sometimes it’s big, like a loved one making life choices we deeply disagree with.  It can feel loving to shut down our response and ignore the mess.  Or it can feel loving to show disapproval and make sure they know they’re wrong – that’s how they’ll learn whats right, right?

But the more I ponder these things the more I feel there is a third option in the real, deep, hard work of empathy. We know how we feel about the mess the child has just made. We can choose to work to understand what it feels like for that little child to have just made that mess—maybe they feel really upset and embarrassed, maybe they found it fun and very exciting to make that mess. Are we willing to try to feel whatever it is they are feeling? The same questions apply to adults. Are we willing to feel their darkness and pain and discomfort within ourselves? Because, even if it’s dark and scary, and we don’t know what to do, that work will bring connection and unity and inspire us to grow.

We don’t live in heaven right now, and not all people are putting equal effort into true loving. So those boundaries are important.  But in many ways I’ve learned to be grateful for my over-extending boundaries. Because now, for example, even though I feel ridiculous every time I cry listening to a powerful song about motherhood, as I think of all the women who have lost babies or lost children or lost adult children, I can feel all that pain in me when I hear the song. I also feel empowered with the love and joy and resilience of those same women who carry on for those that they love. And even in that overextended pain it makes me feel stronger.

Love is not possible without empathy. And empathy is hard, hard work. But when we do that hard work we get the benefit of deep, mutual, life-changing love.

About Abby Smith

Abby is a person. She works at being an emotionally intelligent person whose main focus currently is being a happy and loving mother to four kids and wife to Malcolm. Born and raised in a General church minister's family, she has been exposed to the Bible and the Writings since childhood but is enjoying reading and understanding these books as an adult more and more. The amazing knowledge about love and wisdom and all of the emotions that follow have truly made her a happier and more self-assured person. Her husband serves as the head pastor of New Church Westville near Durban, South Africa. While leaving family behind is a challenge, she quite enjoys living in Africa.

3 thoughts on “The Work of Empathy – That is Loving

  1. Dear Abby, thank you for your message, which feels right now as if it was sent straight to me from Someone who knew I needed to hear it. Empathy is indeed hard work. Thanks for the reminder that the deep and difficult moments of connecting with people are balanced and more than compensated for by the lightness and joy of truly feeling that same person’s happiness at another time. Much love, Bron

  2. Wow, this is good! Thanks so much, Abby. I’ve been thinking about the same kind of stuff, lately, too – more specifically about selfishness, and how what the Lord wants from us is to love others MORE than ourselves (….I think??) – recognising that we need to look after ourselves, to an extent, in order to maintain our sanity and our willingness to keep serving others, but that, overall, we should aim to serve others above all else. [The context for this is a married couple which is on the brink of separation, whom I’m wishing would each work on focusing on his/her spouse – suppress the desire to get out because it feels more personally fulfilling to pursue other interests, and work harder to be there for her spouse because clearly he doesn’t feel supported by her – in order to preserve the marriage. 🙁 ] Anyway…. Yes, empathy; it’s tough, and it’s where it’s at.

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