Empathy

There are a few facts about myself that I don’t tell anyone. I think it’s because they carry insane connotations that I can never seem to overcome. The first one is that I was in speech and debate in high school. The second is that I went to seminary and graduated with a M.DIV and the third is I have a mental illness.

When I was in college I took an intro to philosophy class. Everyone told me I would love the class because it “fit with who I was”. What they were referring to was the fact that I won a bunch of tournaments in debate and that somehow made me fit into a philosophy class. Truthfully, I hated the class. This was all predicated on the fact that I was embarrassed on day 1.

When the class started, the professor went through the syllabus and then stated something to the effect of the class being a discussion class. In order to pass we all had to participate in the discussions in class. So, she started the discussion off with a question: “How would you describe the color green to someone who has been blind since birth?”

Well, being the prideful, arrogant and annoying freshman that I was, I piped up “It’s the color of grass!”.

The entire room was silent.

You know those moments in life when you feel like everyone is staring at you. This was one of the moments.

It took me a while to realize that what I had said was stupid and the professor was struggling to break it to me nicely, so a fellow classmate helped her out.

“They are blind since BIRTH. How would they know what grass looked like?” she said exasperated.

It was almost like my fellow classmate was annoyed at how stupid my answer was. Like I was ruining her education by my stupidity.

As I sat in class trying desperately to come up with my rebuttal to the “goody two shoes”, the class moved on discussing words that described green.

“I would describe the color as honorable” said Goody Two Shoes.

This was my moment. I knew I had to seize on the opportunity to make her feel stupid like she made me feel stupid so I jumped back into the conversation interrupting someone else who was talking.

“Honorable?” I scoffed. “Everyone knows blue is honorable, green is strong.”

I think if I had to pick the weakest argument I have ever made in my life this would be it. That’s saying a lot because one time I spent an evening arguing with someone over whether I could throw a baseball 90 miles an hour. *Spoiler Alert* I can’t.

The professor then made a statement about how the discussion needed to be civilized and spent the remaining 30 minutes talking about safe spaces and freedom of ideas. I think that’s when I made most of the class hate me.

The question the professor asked stuck with me and not because I made a fool out of myself. It stuck with me because the whole basis of the question was “how do you describe something to someone without a base of reference”. Whenever someone asks you of the definition of a word our first reaction to so use synonyms to answer the question. We find a common point of reference in order to start the conversation and without it we are often lost.

For me, describing what having an anxiety disorder is like is akin to describing green to someone who has been blind since birth. There is simply no point of reference to begin the conversation. Whenever I tell someone I have an anxiety disorder I a met with confusion and a disbelief that what I am telling them is real. Occasionally someone asks me questions about it and when I describe the rushing anxious thoughts that I can’t beat back, they simply say “why don’t you just forget it or move on?” Few people understand what it is like to have an obsessive thought that causes you anxiety or distress that no matter what you do will not go away. Few understand what it’s like to perform rituals in order to, in some broken logic, alleviate the anxiety. So, I don’t tell anyone.

It’s ironic that I find myself struggling daily with mental illness. When I was younger all my sisters and my mother suffered from some sort of anxiety disorder. I did not. I never understood the vast anxiety that they faced and would often say dismissive and stupid things. So, it’s ironic that now years later I stand with them in the gap. I think God has an amazing way to teach us things that we desperately need to learn. For me, empathy.

Today I ran into my neighbor in our front yards. We spent a couple minutes lamenting about the gas company’s decision to dig up our yards when he mentioned he was having a BBQ in two weeks and that I should stop by. I asked him what it was for and he stated that his churches small group was coming over. This blew me away. I had no idea that this guy would ever attend church or that he would be heavily involved. As we talked more I found out that he is gay and that he struggled a lot with his identity within the church but that his current small group was the only group that has ever accepted him. We stood outside in the blistering heat talking for close to an hour and we were both taken back by the things we found out about the other person. For the 3 years we have lived here I never knew he was gay.

The reality of life is that we encounter so many people daily that we haven’t the slightest clue of what they are dealing with. If we have any desire at all to engage them with the Gospel our initial response ought to be empathy and nothing else.

 

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