On why some people suck at being empathetic…

I almost punched someone in the armpit a few weeks ago. In my brain, I totally punched that person in the armpit, and then in the ankle.

A few weeks ago I was on the phone sharing something very personal with someone I know. I was talking how event X was really difficult on me because of Y. Like a lot of people, because I was talking about something difficult, I started to cry. There I was, chatting on the phone with this person, pouring out my heart and crying like a child.

I was the picture of vulnerability. In that moment, the only thing I wanted was to share my own personal experience with another human being. All I wanted in return, was for that person to hear my pain, and try to connect with me on a human level.

I think we all want that. I think that is why we make friends, get married, and have children. Deep down, we all want to be vulnerable and share deep connections with other people.

After pouring out my heart, the person said to me, ‘Well… at least you can be happy about…. X. And at least you can look forward to Z.’ That is when my brain started reaching through the digital airwaves and punching this person in the hamstring.

I’m not a negative person. In any given day I see that my life is full of amazing things. I have an AMAZING job, a great husband, and super duper friends. I have a car that works, a house, two cute cats, great parents, and – most importantly – a God that loves me. I understand that focusing on your blessings is a good mental exercise in making sure you don’t turn into a Mr. Sour-puss. I’m aware that being negative all the time sucks.

The thing is, in that moment – in the moment when I’m sharing my soul – that is NEVER the moment when you say ‘Well, at least…’

That is never the moment because it shows that instead of you (as the listener) trying to feel empathy, it shows that you are trying to alter the mental state of the person talking. And if you know even .01% of psychology, you should know that you can never force a person to change her mind by making one or two little ‘Well… at least’ comments. In fact, one or two little comments are more likely to drive a person (like me) to want to slap you in the kidney.

I’ve spent the last few weeks pondering why some people suck at empathy. I think my mother would say, ‘Well, some people just don’t know what to do or what to say.’ I think my mother is an empathetic person – perhaps the most empathetic person I know. I agree with my mother that some people aren’t sure what to say, but I think there is a reason for that. I think the causal factor is that the least empathetic people have never really experienced suffering. The reason some people don’t know what to do or say, is because they’ve never been in a position where they need another person to give them empathy. Until you reach the point of receiving empathy, I’m not sure if you can ever really give it out.

The person that sucked at being empathetic has never experienced true suffering. No big deaths, no illnesses, no big family issues, no real money issues, no marriage problems, no kid problems… no… NOTHING.

My mother…. My mother has overcome more than any person I have ever met. My mother overcome a very difficult childhood. She overcame a very difficult first marriage. I am so proud at my mother’s kindness and resilience. As a result, she knows exactly how to act, react, and empathize.

A few days ago a friend came to me to talk to me about his life. This friend has many things that are exceptionally difficult going on in his life. Half way through our conversation, when he was talking about how difficult life has been, he started crying.

The best thing to do when someone is crying – is to cry with them. So that is what we did. My friend and I sat there for a few minutes, and we just cried.

In a one hour conversation, I am not going to be able to fix another person’s problems. Heck, sometimes I feel like I can’t even fix my own problems. One thing I can do, is sit and listen.

At some point, that person that I wanted to punch in the armpit is going to need someone to cry with. Part of me hopes for that moment to come soon. When that moment comes, part of me wants to wait around the corner with a bunch of ‘Well…. At least X, Y and Z.’ Unfortunately, my dear sweet mother didn’t raise me that way. So when that person comes trotting back needing empathy – which is going to happen at some point – I plan on being there.

If you are my friend, and you need to cry – I will cry with you.

If you are my friend, and you need to talk – I can just shut up and listen.

If you are my friend, and you need me – I want to be here for you.

That is what empathy is. It is understanding. It is sharing. It is… just being there.

On why I left the church, and how I came back…

When I was a freshman in college, I walked away from God and the church. Actually, I’d say I ran away screaming.

My first six months of college I attended a campus Christian group. We would meet every week, discuss the Bible and hang out. Then, one week we started talking about judgment. No, I don’t mean we talked about how we will be judged, or salvation. We didn’t talk about being saved through grace, or acts, or some other theological debate. I mean, the group of people I was sitting with started discussing who was going to heaven and who was going to hell. I thought that was bullshit.

I was so offended by the conversation that I left and didn’t come back to God for about seven years.

My falling off started small, but grew over time. I began doubting God’s existence. I wondered how a gracious God could create a world with so much bullshit. I was angry that I suffered from depression and had experienced so much loss, while other people seemed happy and full of life. I stopped attending church. I never read the Bible. I stopped praying. I stopped believing. If you asked me if I believed in God, I would have told you ‘Hell, no!’

The thing about God’s voice, is that once you’re really heard it – it is impossible to stay away. Although I thought I had left everything I once knew about Christianity, God still wanted me.

After seven years, my life started turning to shit. My now ex-husband was going to leave me. Graduate school was terrible. I was suffering from three solid years of depression. I felt like I had nothing left.

I got into my car and decided I was going to drive it off of a bridge. I started driving around looking for a place where I could gather enough speed, and where I could drive off without hurting anyone else.

But then I heard something. Something was telling me that this didn’t have to be the answer. Instead of driving my car off the bridge, I called a suicide hotline. The woman on the other end, whose name I don’t even remember, saved my life. She convinced me to call my brother. My brother came and got me.

Two days later, I started going to church again. I googled the church that was closest to me, and just started going. I was terrified that someone in the church would be able to see that I had been fighting for team atheist, and that they’d throw me out. No one did that.

I use to think my journey was beautiful and unique. I guess in some ways it is, because it is mine. However, since time has passed I’ve talked to at least a dozen people who’ve followed a similar path. I think a lot of people leave the church because people within the church are shitty to them.

For some strange reason, growing up going to church, I always had this weird idea that church-goers were somehow better people. After over twenty years of going to church, I now see how naïve that is. I do think that churches need to do more to let people know that Christians are not perfect, and that pastors are people who sometimes fuck up. After attending church for a few decades I hope I’m a better person. Even if I’m better, I’m never going to be perfect. No matter how hard I try, I’m probably going to do something that hurts someone.

Churches are full of people. And sometimes people are really crappy. Hopefully, churches can be a safer (safer than work or home) place where we can turn to each other in our times of need. But sometimes, churches fail.

When you are crapped on in church, it is easy to look at the church and blame God for the problem. It is also easy to think all Christians are as terrible as the person/people that treated you poorly.

I’ve found that when I talk to a crappy sales person from a company I often think that the cruddy sales person IS the company. The number one reason people don’t return to a restaurant is a bad waiter. And the main reason people leave a company is a bad boss. Does a bad waiter mean the whole restaurant is terrible? Does a bad boss mean the whole company is worthless?

If you identify as a Christian, and you treat someone like a jerk, it is probable that the person you treated poorly will think that you are representative of all Christians.

I was able to come back to church because I was able to make an important distinction. Going to church is a lot like going to a gym. Some people are going to be really fit, healthy, and in shape. But there are also going to be a lot of people that are unfit, and need to spend a lot of time getting in shape. We don’t go to church because we are perfect. We go to church because we are hoping to get better. If we all had to be perfect in order to meet Jesus, none of us would be good enough.

If you’re reading this, and someone within the church has hurt you – I want to tell you that I’m sorry for that. I’m sorry that someone hurt you. That sucks.

If you’re reading this, and I’ve hurt you – I am sorry for that as well. I’m sorry I was a crappy person.

In the campus Christian group, those people were just being jerks that day. It doesn’t mean they are terrible people. It certainly doesn’t mean God is terrible.

At the end of the day, the most important thing, is that you are a child of God and God loves you. No matter what you’ve done, and no matter what others have done to you, God loves you. In a perfect world we would always be examples of Christ. We would let other people be themselves. We would hold each other when we are in pain. We would protect each other, help each other grow, we would be safe places in a storm. But we are people, and we will fail.

No matter where you are, if you’ve ever heard the voice of God – He is calling to you. He wants you to hear Him. He needs you. And if you’ve ever heard the calling, you know that you need Him too.
From the day my husband and I were baptized.