August 15, 2019
The Year of Empathy
Did you know that since the 1960’s researchers have been studying the trends of empathy? Over the years they’ve discovered that empathy is changing in how people put it into practice – particularly young people. By 2007 researchers found that young people were 40% less empathetic than the previous generation. Most of us are able to empathize with those we consider to be on our “team” or in our “tribe.” But when it comes to those on the “other team”, well that’s almost taboo. This ability, which is meant to help us connect to our fellow human beings, is oddly practiced in a restrictive way rather than a liberating way. Jesus seemed to be consistently trying to expand peoples' empathy toward those considered “others” or even those considered “enemies.” I suspect what we have handed down through generations has missed the mark.
This year as our ministry team pondered what our coming year would look like in the Youth Ministry, we considered the question, “What if we spent an entire year on one theme?” What we are now planning is The Year of Empathy. Throughout this year we are imagining what it looks like to be more empathetic toward our neighbor – especially those we might find difficult to love or understand. And before that we are going to engage in practices that will help our young people spend some time looking inward to better understand themselves – because if we do not understand our own emotions and experiences, we will be unable to empathize with the emotions and experiences of others. We are especially focusing on our Sunday night program as a kind of “empathy lab” where we will explore practices and stories that might help us become more empathetic people.
I have recently come to discover the work of Irish poet Padraig O’Tauma. Growing up during the troubles in Ireland, his writing often reflects on the pain of a divided people, and the work it takes to move toward healing, reconciliation, and liberation. In his work [The] North[ern] [of] Ireland he writes:
At the end of the day the reality is
That whether we change or whether we stay the same
These questions will remain.
Who are we to be with one another?
How are we to be with one another?
These are the questions we should be asking of ourselves. What kind of people are we to be in the world? How are we to be with one another in the midst of our pain and the uncertainty of the future? Maybe the way forward is one of compassion, of greater empathy, of being more neighborly. I completely recognize the potential boredom or restlessness that may result in spending an entire year on a single topic with teenagers. I also truly believe it is worth the risk. I have already caught glimpses of the courage, love, and kindness that God has woven into the fabric of the soul of our young people. While we hope to see our young people grow and think bigger about their world, I suspect we will see that God has something to teach us in and through them. May we have eyes to see and ears to hear.