You may have read the book or seen the popular movie, The Help, a story of women’s lives in Mississippi during the very beginnings of the Civil Rights Movement of the 60’s. This story is told through the eyes of two black women working as maids and one white woman who was raised by a black maid and whose friends all employ black maids; two very different perspectives.
Growing up in rural Northern California as I did, the civil rights struggle was something we saw on TV, but didn’t usually experience first hand. Reading this book, I felt that I was able to understand and empathize with the people who had been hurt by the horrible Jim Crow segregation laws and attitudes of that era. At the end of the book, the author, Kathryn Stockett, wrote about her own growing up years in Mississippi during that troubling time. She explained that, as a white woman, she’d felt trepidation about writing in the first person for the two black maids in her story, because, no matter how sympathetic and well-meaning we may be, it is impossible for any of us to completely empathize with another.
In this world of instant reaction and over-reaction on social media, we frequently see someone attacked for attempting to express sympathy or support. Some people don’t feel anyone has the right to try to empathize with another identity group, so they reject these comments as condescending expressions of some sort of ‘privilege’. If prayers are offered, they are flung back at the speaker as meaningless, empty words. Seemingly no one is ever given the benefit of the doubt regarding their intentions.
Every person’s life is unique, so no one can ever truly understand another’s viewpoint. Even ‘walking in their shoes’ is experienced with one’s own feet. This is an important truth to remember, both when trying to understand another person’s sensitivities and when we are the ones feeling wounded.
I can’t expect anyone to fully understand my struggles, so I need to be forgiving when someone inadvertently makes things worse while trying to empathize with me.
Perhaps we wouldn’t need to walk on the eggshells of political correctness if we would all agree to stop demanding complete empathy and begin to appreciate the well-meaning sympathetic gestures, instead.
Jesus is the only one who can fully empathize with anyone. While we can aspire to emulate Him, we cannot hold others to His supernatural standard of compassion.
Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—His good, pleasing, and perfect will. – Romans 12:2 (NIV)