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  • Writer's pictureJim Donaher

Empathize Before You Opine

Lately, I ask myself more and more, "Can you imagine being so-and-so?" A person in a difficult situation. An awkward exchange. A threatening environment. An adversarial meeting. Someone facing insurmountable power. Or privilege. Or rank. Or wealth. Someone in trouble.

It may be the result of a tweet-oriented culture, but our tendency to toss out overly simple, ill-considered sound bites instead of carefully thinking about all those involved is at the base of the decline of civility and respect, that frankly wasn't very high to begin with.

Very often, the people who opine the most aggressively are those with no involvement in the matter. But if they were able to stop and think - using their imaginations to consider the plight of those directly involved - might they be so aggressive? Might they realize that it's not so simple after all?

In the early 1970's, a federal judge ordered the City of Boston to desegregate their schools. It found that the schools in predominantly minority neighborhoods were not as well-maintained, staffed, equipped, or safe as those in white neighborhoods.

In those days, the local news each night featured video of screeching parents and others, many saying overtly racist things, saying they didn't want the black kids in their schools, and they didn't want their own kids bussed to a different neighborhood with what they knew were substandard schools. All were unified in fearing for their children's safety in the neighborhoods they were bussed to.

It's worth observing that the local TV stations generally interviewed white parents and kids because they didn't bother to interview black parents and kids. Black parents and kids had different concerns, mostly about their physical safety when traveling to these other neighborhoods, full of angry white people. They were wondering whether all this was worth the questionable advantage that their kids might get.

So, the problem that was identified was unequal education based on race. The white neighborhoods resisted change, given they had an advantage. The black neighborhoods were cautious about the change, not trusting the schools and the police to keep children safe, and not trusting anyone to invest in their local schools, which were deemed to be substandard.

The simplistic answer? Send the white kids to black neighborhood schools and send black kids to white neighborhood schools. All it will cost is some busses, and those poor black kids will get to see what a nice white school looks like.

I was 12 when the busses began to roll at the start of the school year. I remember the footage of white people standing on the sidewalks screaming and swearing at the busses carrying black students - often elementary school-aged kids - to their assigned school in Southie. At South Boston High School, it was the same, but there was also a lot of rock and bottle throwing at the black student's busses.

South Boston, Fall 1974

It was reported that there were fights between black and white students at Southie High every day. I recall a stabbing that increased tensions tenfold as both sides said, "See? I told you!" said everyone.

I remember watching the news and seeing those angry faces, and the objects getting thrown at busses with little kids in them. My mother would say, "Can you imagine being one of those kids inside that bus? They're so little! How do they even know what's going on?"

It made me think. And imagine. And feel. Anxiety, fear, anger, confusion. "What's going to happen? Those are grown-ups out there!"

My mother exuded empathy in everything she did. But that day, after all the times I had seen her exhibit it, I started to get it. When you see something going on, think of the vulnerable ones. In the school bus scenario, the vulnerable ones were innocent children. But their age or innocence don't matter. When someone is vulnerable, they are just human beings. And we can empathize.

Here are a few fairly easy ones. Most of us have heard of this sort of thing and our hearts fairly naturally go out to these unfortunate people:

The family left homeless by fire

The family struggling with a child's serious illness

The disabled elder living alone

The veteran struggling with injuries sustained during their service

The child with autism bullied on the school bus. (And in the hallway, the gym, the cafeteria, and the bathroom...)

Here are a few more, which some may have a more trouble with. Some will say that these people are victims of their own choices. Maybe, but that isn't the point. It's to imagine how they are feeling now. To put ourselves into their shoes:

The young girl who learns she is pregnant.

The young man who got his girlfriend pregnant and wants to do the right thing. (Or doesn't.)

The immigrant woman with small children who is trying to find a better life in a new country.

The middle schooler struggling with their sexual identity.

The young black man stopped for speeding on a dark road outside of town.

The young girl who shared pictures of herself with her boyfriend only to find that everyone at school has a copy.

The boyfriend who broke her trust.

The death row inmate. (Or any inmate.)

How about people you might meet on a typical day? They are people you can miss, unless they are especially upbeat and helpful or particularly sullen or nasty. People have varying levels of skill at their jobs. Not everyone is a star. And you never know what another person is going through:

The sullen cashier

The foreign-accented telephone customer service agent

The slow server at a restaurant

The strict schoolteacher who disciplines your kid

The unresponsive real estate agent who keeps showing you houses you don't like

The neglectful bus driver who doesn't stop when you want them to

Some people are nice, while others are jerks. Some people are highly competent, others, barely functional. Some seem to have a charmed life, while others struggle every single day. Some have lots of support and love. Some are alone, or worse, undermined and discouraged by those closest to them.

The point is, unless you know someone very well, you have no idea what they are going through. Even those you know well may have secrets that affect how they behave. Things that frighten them. Things that make them question themselves. Things that undermine their feelings of safety or self-worth. Things that make them happy or sad. And the reasons for all these things.

Jesus Christ told us we are to love one another. Period. He didn't say 'love one another, as long as you agree, as long as they're nice to you, as long as they do what you think they should do.' Jesus made no exceptions. Neither should we. Love one another.

At a minimum, the kind of love that Jesus commands means using our empathy to pray for, hope for that person, whomever they are, that they will be okay, that whatever is bothering them is resolved. That they find their way if they are lost. That they receive the love and care they should receive as children of God.

It also means not speculating, gossiping, and spreading harsh opinions and judgments about other people. In person, on social media, or in any other way. If it's not loving, don't say it or type it.

Lord, you promised us that in this life we would have trouble and, as usual, you were right. Every one of us is going through some sort of pain, turmoil, worry, fear, or insecurity due to the wide variety of evils loose in this broken world.

Lord, we pray for all people, everywhere. That they are able to find resolutions to the problems that shake them, so that they may relax and enjoy the blessings you surround us with.

And for all people, everywhere, we pray for empathy that leads to mercy, grace that leads to decency, and kindness that leads to love.

We ask all this in Jesus' saving name, AMEN!

Jim is a blogger about the intersection of Christianity and everyday life. He is the author of two books about prayer from the perspective of a regular person. You can find his books on his Amazon author page and links from this website to those books.

Feel free to email Jim with comments or questions at, tweet at him on twitter @DonaherJim or on his Facebook page

Thanks for reading!



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