Let me clarify: it’s human nature to suck at empathy, but I think that Mormons are under obligation to be better at empathy because of the covenants we have made. I believe the heart of Christlike discipleship requires empathy. I believe ministering to each other is impossible with out it. If we want to be counted amongst God’s people we must be “willing to bear one another’s burdens, that they may be light. Yea, and are willing to mourn with those that mourn; yea, and comfort those that stand in need of comfort.” (Mosiah 18:9) I believe that empathy is at the heart of Charity, the pure love of Christ; the love we are commanded to have for our fellow men.
According to my Facebook feed this week is National Infertility Awareness Week. Over 1 in 8 couples struggles with infertility. I am one of those couples, I have diagnosed unexplained infertility. I like to speak about my experiences in part to destigmatize the shame surrounding infertility and also because it’s at the root of my faith transition and feminism. Through some of my personal experiences I wanted to share how not to do empathy, an example of how someone tried empathy and almost hit the landing, and end with perfect example. Let me just give you a quick rundown of some of the most common responses infertile couples experience:
- Just __________ (relax, do IVF, adopt, etc.)!
- Don’t worry, it always happens when you least expect it!
- My niece’s boyfriends yoga instructor got pregnant with triplets on the day the adopted twins!
- But you’ve been promised children in the next life, you just have to endure to the end!
- [Parents understand] that without children, [Adam and Eve] would have had no misery or joy.
- I know exactly how you feel. Once we had to try for over two months before we got pregnant.
- For those who have miscarriages: “At least you can get pregnant” or “At least you lost it early” or “Just keep trying, eventually one will stick.”
- Have you tried (Chlomid/acupuncture/fertility tea/temple prayer rolls/putting a pillow under your hips/etc.)? It totally worked for my cousin!
- You just need to have more faith; faith moves mountains!
Before you get worked up about all of these infertile people choosing to be offended, that is not what this is about. This is not about trigger warnings and the political correctness police. I do not hold grudges or get angry or offended when people make these unkind and painful statements. I know they *think* they are saying something helpful. And that is entirely the point of this post. I’m using infertility to show a pattern: even if the example were cancer or death of a loved one, I believe that in general Mormons have no concept how to exercise their empathy muscles.
A recent example of this over the pulpit happened last month during the Women’s Session of General Conference. Sis. Carole Stephens of the General Relief Society presidency spoke and she attempted to be empathetic, but because she wasn’t vulnerable and open it felt empty and flat. In some circles she was criticized, even; but I want to show how much she was trying:
I’ve never had to live through divorce, the pain and insecurity that comes from abandonment, or the responsibility associated with being a single mother. I haven’t experienced the death of a child, infertility, or same-gender attraction. I haven’t had to endure abuse, chronic illness, or addiction. These have not been my stretching opportunities.
So right now some of you are thinking, “Well then, Sister Stephens, you just don’t understand!” And I answer that you may be right. I don’t completely understand your challenges. But through my personal tests and trials—the ones that have brought me to my knees—I have become well acquainted with the One who does understand, He who was “acquainted with grief,”6 who experienced all and understands all. And in addition, I have experienced all of the mortal tests that I just mentioned through the lens of a daughter, mother, grandmother, sister, aunt, and friend. (link, emph added)
Sis. Stephens attempted to connect with those who have been through really awful things by saying “I have had my own personal tests and trials and been [driven] to my knees.” The thing this sentiment is missing is vulnerability and openness. What if Sis. Stephens would have actually opened up and shared her griefs and the things that broke her heart? She was really close to actually sharing, almost enough space for us to meet her in our shared grief; but she effectively slammed the door with her last sentence coming across as, “besides I know people who’ve had those things so I do understand.” Which…is a really bad way to say that. But I think she really, really tried.
One of today’s leading experts on empathy, vulnerability, authenticity, and shame is Brene Brown, a social science researcher. Please watch this short animated video that was created to go along with 3 minutes of a speech she gave:
“Empathy is cultivated by courage, compassion, and connection… Brown references Theresa Wiseman’s four defining attributes of empathy: (1) to be able to see the world as others see it, (2) to be nonjudgmental, (3) to understand another person’s feelings, and (4) to communicate your understanding of that person’s feelings.” Source Empathy requires us to connect to our own experiences of pain and grief and be able to share and say, “I have been through an awfully difficult thing ______ that broke my heart. I don’t know exactly how you feel, but I know when I went through my thing I was devastated. I can only imagine how you feel. I am so very sorry.”
I think it is through empathy that Christ understands our burdens. He, who hath descended below all things, knows my heart and my pain, even though he never had unexplained infertility. Connection is required for empathy, connecting has healing power. Connection happens when we minister to each other one by one, following the pattern our Savior taught (3 Nephi 17-18).
I’m a big fan of vulnerability, authenticity, and empathy – I believe they’ve transformed my life as I’ve tried to use them to become an instrument in God’s hands. I believe my recent discovery of the power of empathy in my life has helped me see and love others as God sees them. But I’ve also seen vulnerability, authenticity, and empathy referred to as flash-in-the-pan pop psychology. Do you think empathy is important for Mormons to develop? Do you think the way we interact (the structure of our meetings, firesides, classes, etc.) could be improved to help foster the development of empathy? Or is something else at the root of our lack of ability to connect? Pace of modern life? Our culture of “smile and never complain” coming out when we respond with “at least you ______” ? Or is this a twisted form of gratitude culture? Discuss.
P.S. And last but not least, do you have any un-empathetic things people have said to you while you were amidst a “stretching experience”? It can be therapeutic to share and bond over our bizarre experiences.