The Exercise of Empathy

Photo by Zahid Hasan Joy on Unsplash 2

“Move along, sister!” the police officer was firmly instructing me.

I was standing in front of a scene I’d only ever heard about before. Next to me was my 7 year old son. I had just picked him up from school. We were walking to pick up my other son from his preschool.

But here I was standing frozen in the street. A man was lying on the ground being repeatedly kicked by one police officer who was shouting at the man in a volume I’ve never heard before. He sounded like an animal. A monster.

The man on the ground was motionless. Quiet. I noticed quickly that he didn’t appear to be Turkish. I guessed he was a refugee, perhaps Syrian. Or maybe a member of one of the minority groups here in Turkey.

While he received his beating, 3-4 other policemen were trying to usher away a few passersby. “Move along, sister!” He said it again but I was having trouble moving.

What should I do? What can I do?

I thought about shouting at the policeman. Maybe he would stop.

I thought about taking out my phone and making a video. That might stop the beating.

I didn’t know what to do and I couldn’t seem to think clearly or fast enough.

All I felt or knew at that moment was that I desperately wanted the beating to stop. I could somehow feel the pain of each kick. The physical agony. But maybe deeper was the feeling of the assault against the man’s dignity.

Thinking about it now, I know this kind of thing doesn’t only happen in Turkey. We have all heard the stories of unethical police officers abusing people in the United States and around the world. It happens. It happens far too often.

What I have realized more and more as each year passes is that it is very difficult for all of us, myself included, to not feel threatened by someone who is different than us.

This is at the heart of racism. Fear. Fear and misunderstanding. Because we don’t walk in the shoes of someone who has grown up in a totally different culture than our own. 

But it doesn’t even have to go as deep as racism. For example, my father passed away five months ago. In light of that, my mother recently said to me, ‘If I had only known before how difficult it was to be a widow, I would have done so much more to bless the widows in my life’.

But the thing is, we don’t know. We don’t know the experience of being married until we are married. We don’t know the experience of having children until we have them. A friend without children recently complained to me that she grows weary of her friends who do have children always being distracted by them. Its truly very hard to understand the distractedness that having children leads to when you haven’t experienced it yet.

We don’t know the experience of loss until we walk that dark road. 

A friend of mine has financial problems that I have never had. There’s panic and hopelessness in her voice every time we talk.

An acquaintance has twin babies. Her husband works six days a week, 11 hours a day. She has no family here to help her. They barely make ends meet. She’s exhausted and overwhelmed.

A women clearly bald from chemotherapy yelled at me in frustration when I parked in front of her business last week.

I passed another woman on the street who didn’t even attempt to cover the purple bruises around her swollen eyes. What kind of abuse she must face.

A small boy, probably around age 5 or 6  approached me one evening asking for money. He should have been home safe and warm in a bed, not out on the streets begging.

My heart breaks. I don’t know what these people face. I don’t know the horrors they’ve experienced. The hopelessness of their futures. 

We just don’t know, do we? We don’t know what it is like to walk around in someone else’s shoes.

So what do we often do instead? We judge. We blame people for their own financial problems. We puff ourselves up with thoughts like, ‘Well, I managed taking care of a newborn, she should be able to do it too!” Its easy to think, ‘Just because you have cancer doesn’t give you the right to be rude to me.’ We question why a woman doesn’t leave her abuser. We dismiss the ache that comes from seeing a small boy begging because we simply can’t handle the thought of it.

Empathy. Its a theme that just keeps coming back to me. I know it is something we have to exercise. Its a beautiful tool, but it has to be used.

I do think sometimes the Holy Spirit pours out a measure of empathy, as He did for me when I was watching that man being beaten on the street.

But many times I believe we have to choose empathy. And it can be a lot of work to choose empathy.

It is much easier to judge, to dismiss, to wallow in pride. Much easier for many to even embrace racism. By putting up the wall, we can keep out what we fear. Its easier than trying to understand. Its easier than trying for one moment to consider what it might be like to have been born in that persons shoes rather than our own.

But I do believe it is something we need to exercise more. Empathy.

I stood there on the street, holding my small son’s hand, and feeling deep empathy for the man lying on the ground. Most likely he was a thief. Perhaps he was something worse.

But I couldn’t help but think how he didn’t deserve this, regardless of what he had done. 

“Move along, sister!” Now that cop was walking towards me. And I turned. And I walked away.

My excuses were my sons who needed me. I didn’t want to be detained. I didn’t want to be marked somehow for being a whistle blower. Thinking of my children, I chose not to risk my situation or my comfort for the sake of this man. I don’t know if that was right. I don’t know if it was ethical. I don’t know if it was Biblical or spiritual. I just made the decision in the moment to walk away.

But I am still thinking about my brother, the man lying on the ground. I’m still wondering what path he walked. What challenges he faced. And I am praying for him.

God used him to show me a few things about empathy and as I have the opportunity, I want to exercise this gift of empathy and use it to bless those who walk in the shoes next to mine. 

 


 

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