So small…

I went out to a Halloween party several weeks ago. I was dressed like Nicolas Cage from National Treasure, but that’s a story for another day.

At one point we landed at a bar that was packed with people. I was standing next to a bunch of friends at the bar, and behind me was a group of people sitting at tables. It was so tight that a waitress could barely squeeze through. Although I wasn’t the cause of her issue I caught myself saying to the waitress, “I’m so sorry.”

The week prior I had hung out with some of my girlfriends. One friend was telling us that her daughter mentioned that mommy says sorry too much. We made a vow at that hang out to catch ourselves when we were saying sorry for things we didn’t need to. Ever since that vow I have started noticing how small I made myself over the last few years.

We were part of a church where (for some reason) we never talked about anything related to politics. No, I’m not talking about who to vote for, or saying crazy things from the pulpit. I’m talking about blatantly obvious inequalities that people who care about loving others should give some thought to. If you never question your own privilege, and if you never learn to have empathy for others – can you ever really grow as a person? I don’t think you can.

Del was a pastor at a church for a little while. We had a congregant who posted something horrific on social media. It was both inaccurate and inappropriate. Del did what he thought was right and gently corrected the person. That person then proceeded to leave the church. I thought we were somehow keeping ourselves safe by making sure we never upset those around us. If I just stay quiet enough, if I hold in my own truth, I won’t bother others and then I can keep myself safe. It’s a tactic that probably worked for some point in my life.

I gave birth in 2020. Yes, it was a pandemic. Yes, it was a very difficult time for many people. But do you know how many people from our church staff checked on us? It was exactly zero. I had stayed so quiet to keep people around, and no one came anyways.

In 2021 I started getting our tax information together. The day I was doing our taxes I also drove into town and saw a line of homeless people waiting to get food. I pulled up online how much money we had donated to our church over the years. It was a lot. Then I asked myself a very important question. Stephanie, what are you doing to feed people in need? And I answered to myself, “nothing.”

For almost a decade I stayed complacent and gave money to support a building of people. I stayed quiet when I should have spoken up because I thought it would help me build relationships.

I was wrong.

I am working on no longer staying small when I can use my voice to speak up. Science matters. People of color matter. Women are important. We need to support the LGBTQIA+ community. And the model of churches in the United States is not serving people with the greatest need.

We stopped tithing that amount of money. Instead we started giving to others. Organizations that feed people. Missionaries that are doing great work. Places that support the arts. Friends and family in need. And good people we know who are building a new church.

Saying I’m sorry for things that don’t need an apology is a habit I’m trying to break. But I am sorry that I stayed small for so long. Sorry to people that needed a voice. I apologize for supporting organizations that were detrimental to many. I will do the work to be better. But mostly – I’m sorry to myself for not being the truest version of who I am. I am starting to voice my own needs and boundaries.

Staying small stops now.

On why empathy is important…

A few months ago I went through a rough patch in life.

The church campus where my husband was a part-time pastor closed, and I spent a long time dealing with that loss (I wrote about that here).

Being active in our church, we have an amazing group of friends who are incredibly supportive. During the church closing, I reached out to our friends and mentioned that the closing was really hitting me hard.

I was surprised when our close friends did not seem to be responding in a way that I though reflected the empathy I needed. I was confused that our friends seemed to be falling short. It was especially strange because we have, quite possibly, the best group of friends for which you could ever ask. When you’re sick, they’ll bring food. When you need prayer, they’re a message or call away. I wanted someone to say, “That situation sounds so difficult. Thanks for telling me. I’m here for you.” (I’ve since talked to my friends about this… I mentioned they’re amazing? Part of the issue was me not properly asking for help. I’ll write more about that later).

That experience forced me to reflect on an important question I think we should all ask ourselves: am I good at being empathetic?

The last time I took a personality assessment, one thing that stood out was that I value accurate information over feelings. If someone says something I know to be incorrect, it is more important to me to correct that person than it is for me to value that person’s feelings. In high school, one of my friends was telling me about a difficult situation they felt they were having with their parent. Rather than consider how my friend was feeling, I remember correcting that person when they told me details about a story I knew were incorrect. I can be such a dick sometimes.

I can also think of dozens of times where people have told me about something difficult they’ve gone through, and I can remember not responding as well as I could have. I can think of times where I could have listened rather than talked, where I should have been kind but was impatient, and where I tried to one-up instead of empathize.

Am I good at being empathetic? I’m not terrible, but I need to be better because I am falling short.

My experience after the church closing also led me to ask what I believe is one of the most important questions in the world: why are some people better at giving empathy?

Sympathy isn’t empathy.

Empathy fuels connection – while sympathy drives disconnection. Click here for a video on the topic that I love.

And here’s a nice summary of what is empathy. Empathy occurs in communication when there is:

1)      perspective taking

2)      staying out of judgement

3)      recognizing emotion and then

4)      communicating that emotion back to other people

But what makes someone have the ability to be empathetic? (I wrote about this before too).

It turns out that the most empathetic people, are those that have been through the most difficult situations. David DeSteno, a professor at Northeastern University who specializes in social psychology, noted the following in his article from the New York Times:

“those who had faced increasingly severe adversities in life — loss of a loved one at an early age, threats of violence or the consequences of a natural disaster — were more likely to empathize with others in distress, and, as a result, feel more compassion for them.”

However, in his article, DeSteno goes on to note that studies have also found that:

“Living through hardship doesn’t either warm hearts or harden them; it does both. Having known suffering in life usually heightens the compassion we feel for others, except when the suffering involves specific painful events that we know all too well.”

Simply put… if Mr. X has been through a lot of tough shit, he’ll likely be more empathetic – unless you’re telling Mr. X about a situation he’s already been through.

When I first read about this twist on empathy, I just sat on in – pondering over its merits. Then, a few weeks ago I noticed it playing out in my own mind. One of my co-workers was telling me about how she had too much work to do. An empathetic response would’ve been, “Thanks for telling me. It does sounds like you have a lot going on. Can I help you?” However, I had a ton of work to do as well so I said, “Tell me about it- I’m so busy.”

The moment the words left my mouth I realized what I’d done. Gah, I can be such a dick sometimes.

Empathy is important because people are the most important things in the world. God created more than one human because we were meant to live in connection with each other. If we were never meant to connect, we would live on islands. When we fail to give empathy, we fail at connecting. We miss an opportunity to share ourselves with another human being.

My plan for the next year is get better at being empathetic. When someone needs to connect with me – and I am able – I’m going to try. I hope you’ll consider trying too.

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.