“Empathy is a remarkably selfless emotion: it requires a person to leave the comfort of their own perceived place in the world and inhabit the experience of someone else.” — Amber Heard
Some years ago a group of senior students from a tony high school went on a community service project to a church that had a well-established meal program for homeless individuals and families.
The students, from comfortable and highly privileged middle class and wealthy families, were somewhat nervous that they would be serving meals to homeless children and families who were beset by an encyclopedia of social and mental problems, and who were, seemingly, a world away from the daily and life experience of the high schoolers.
When the students arrived at the church, they were in for a holy surprise and the unexpected incarnation of a new spirit.
Instead of helping to feed the hungry and homeless clients at the shelter, the students were asked to join the line along with those who were being served lunch. In pairs, the students were asked to sit with the others being served, who were not coiffed, deodorized or designer-branded as were the community service participants.
Those who came to serve were suddenly recipients of service. They were not able to hide behind the superior position of ladling soup or dishing food for others. They had to engage the clients of the center in conversation over a simple meal.
Clearly, the students could not truly understand the mental illness, post-traumatic stress from war, addiction, domestic abuse, alcoholism, misfortune and other experiences of homelessness and poverty of those who had to every day, often three times a day, wait on a line in order to eat.
After the service project, the young people would soon return to their suburban comfort and choice of just about anything they wanted to eat at any time of the day.
But that day, for the first time, for a number of the students, there were the first glimmers of empathy and understanding for homeless and hungry people they had only seen on television or at a distance on the streets.
For what was only a glimmer, they briefly left “the comfort of their own perceived place in the world and inhabit[ed] the experience of someone” else.
In so doing, they enjoyed just the beginning, or the “faint or wavering light” of their own vulnerability, and possibly a sense that they might at some point in life experience the very same vulnerabilities of the homeless men and women with whom they shared a meal and conversation.
One of the students had just broken up with his girlfriend. He was bemoaning the loss of a first love. The conversation at lunch with the homeless veteran with whom he shared lunch was about girlfriends and the loss of love.
Whether homeless or privileged to live in a nice home, there is no human distinction or divide when it comes to heartbreak, loss, loneliness, the betrayal of a friendship and other fractures of relationships.
The student marveled that instead of “feeding the homeless”, for which he could morally pat himself on the back and brag about to his peers, he was instead the recipient of kindness, understanding and the gift of empathy from someone he came to serve.
Service and empathy are infused and pregnant with paradox, ultimate surprise, the shattering of our pretensions and privileges, akin to one of the master paradoxes of Christian spirituality: “Whoever tries to keep their life will lose it, and whoever loses their life will preserve it.” (Luke 17:33).
Through self-donation and service of others we are transformed and gather the threads and moral energy for conversion – and joy!
Our myriad anxieties, avoidance of pain, fears, insecurities, disappointment, loss of loved ones, hopelessness, boredom, tedium, discontent and other ailments of the spirit, can never be tamed by materialism and other distractions.
Being cocooned and anesthetized in our luxury homes, luxury cars and first class privileges, breeds pretension, indifference, boredom and loneliness.
Losing ourselves in the service of something grander than our own needs or pampered comfort is the only genuine path for true joy, which is not the same as the temporary happiness that comes from endless material acquisition.
A young, nerdish student, who was not among the popular set on the school social circuit or one of the celebrated athletes or one of the so-called smart kids, bumbled along in high school, somewhat socially isolated and awkward.
He was a C-student who struggled academically. He failed to complete his first community service program and probably drank a little too much and smoked too much weed on the weekends.
The summer before his last year in high school, he signed up to be a volunteer at a Muscular Dystrophy Association (MDA) camp for kids in order to meet his community service requirement.
“Volunteers work with campers, providing around-the-clock care and attention. Counselors push wheelchairs, meet the daily needs of each child and become a youngster’s friend for a week.”
Over the course of a holy week, the student emerged from the cocoon of certain weaknesses and vulnerabilities, transformed into one of the better volunteers the MDA Camp saw that year. He found new and unexpected life and joy.
His supervisor marveled at how this shy and awkward young man came to love and was loved in return by the disabled young boy, of whom the former became his companion, friend and helper around-the-clock during a summer of transformation for both of them.
Even after the student had finished his community service requirement he returned to help and to serve because, to paraphrase his joy, he was compelled to do so.
As other students were called to receive their academic awards at graduation that year, he was given the school’s community service award, to the delight and surprise of his parents and peers, and to his own great surprise.
We serve and are transformed not only from our strengths but more often from the depth and struggle of our vulnerabilities. The Sufi mystic and poet Rumi instructs: “The wound is the place where the light enters you.”
Our wounds can destroy. If healed, they can make us stronger. Some who have experienced physical abuse become more empathetic. But, some turn into abusers. Some victims of abuse describe how working with others who were abused helped them to cope with their own pain and struggle.
Those who revel in tearing down others, including purported friends, with lies and gossip, are really revealing their unhealed and often unrecognized interior wounds, insecurities and often desperate need for love.
We all struggle with our clever demons and falsehoods. But it is remarkable how genuine empathy and service of others beyond our weaknesses can help us to lose ourselves and discover new life and spiritual and emotional resources which can help to tame our demons and arrest our conceits.
There are psychological and emotional knots inside each of us which may be slowly unbound or eventually shredded, if we are fortunate, through a genuine empathy which recognizes in others our own struggles.
In the wake of Hurricane Dorian, many are asking what they can do as volunteers and people of service to aid the long-term reconstruction of Abaco and Grand Bahama.
In place of the negativity from some about the deficits in our land post-Dorian, we have the opportunity to usher in a new period of service and volunteerism which can heal and build our country.
Those who are busy serving and helping do not have the energy and time to complain about what is not being done or to criticize those who are offering their gifts and their empathy in the service of others.