Peaceful Revolution: The Muscle of Empathy

Sunday Message by Rev. Pat Bessey —

On the eve of Valentine’s Day, I want to tell you that God loves you and so do I! I subscribe to Sr. Joan Chittister’s weekly email and I would like to share some of it with you. It is titled “A Valentine Note.”

Ananda, the beloved disciple of the Buddha, once asked his teacher about the place of friendship in the spiritual journey. “Master, is friendship half of the spiritual life?” he asked. And the teacher responded, “Nay, Ananda, friendship is the whole of the spiritual life.”

There are times when it seems that so much has been written about love that there is no more to be said about it. And, worse, sometimes it seems that so much that has been written about love that is pure drivel— unattained and unattainable. Or volumes are written about sexual manipulation without a word about the fact that good sex, holy sex, requires a good relationship. Or pure theory of a theological kind talks about “loving” God when I have yet to understand human love, let alone the divine. But love is none of those things, alone and entirely. Love is far more meaningful than that.

Love is something learned only by the long, hard labor of life. It is sometimes over before we’ve even known we ever had it. We sometimes destroy it before we appreciate it. We often have it and simply take it for granted.

Every love, whatever happens to it in the long run, teaches us more about ourselves, our needs, our limitations, and our self-centeredness than anything else we can ever experience. As Aldous Huxley wrote: “There isn’t any formula or method. You learn by loving.”

But sometimes, if we’re lucky, we live long enough to grow into it in such a way that because of it we come to recognize the value of life. As the years go by, we come to love flowers and cats and small infants and old ladies and life on the dock and the one person in life who knows how hot we like our coffee.

We learn enough about love to allow things to slip away and ourselves to melt into the God whose love made all of it possible. Sometimes we even find a love deep enough, gentle enough, tender enough to detach us from the foam and frills of life, all of which hold us captive to things that cannot satisfy. Sometimes we live long enough to see the face of God in another. Then, in that case, we have loved.

The poets and storytellers across time have told us about the dimensions of love that last. The poet Rumi wrote:

From myself I am copper,
through You, friend, I am gold.
From myself I’m a stone, but
through You I am a gem.

This past Sunday I continued with the talk series from Paul K. Chappell’s book, Peaceful Revolution. It was the Muscle of Empathy that we looked at. Chappell wrote: Empathy is our ability to identify with and relate to others. It allows us to recognize ourselves in them, sympathize with their problems, and share their joy and pain. Empathy is the most powerful force in the world.

He also says: Empathy is our ability to identify with and relate to others. Every act of kindness, compassion, generosity, and forgiveness is built on the foundation of empathy; every act of hatred and cruelty results from the absence.

It is important to clarify the difference between sympathy and empathy. Sympathy is feeling sorrow for someone else’s misfortune and may come from a place of perceived superiority. Empathy is the ability to understand and share the other person’s feelings and perspectives, to figuratively “walk in someone else’s shoes.”

Brene Brown’s definition is empathy fuels connection; sympathy drives disconnection.

Unconditional Love: A Higher Expression of Empathy

The muscle of empathy grows into unconditional love:
• When we take action to make a positive difference in another’s life…
• When we act selflessly on someone’s behalf

The poet Hafiz saw unconditional love as:

Even after all this time
The Sun never says to the Earth,
“You owe me”.
Look what happens with a love like that,
It lights the whole sky.

To hear also about Solidarity: The Highest Expression of Empathy, use the audio player above to listen to this week’s message. Next week the message will be on the Muscle of Appreciation.

You are a blessing in my life.
Rev. Patricia Bessey

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