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.
It seems to me that you are finding too much fault in your fellow Latter-day Saints, as deficient in “vulnerability, authenticity, and empathy” for not having reached your level of understanding or practice in these matters. Can you forgive the rest of us? To the degree that your writing is a step towards forgiveness, maybe it is therapeutic for you.
You expressed your perspective from your need. Other persons (myself included), in a stretching situation, might have a need differing from yours — they (I) might want a stiff upper lip, so to speak, and support and strength from others in the faith community — they (I) might not want vulnerability and sharing and so forth. I think most Latter-day Saints try to be appreciative of whatever support is offered, however inartfully rendered.
I have read that Latter-day Saints are already over-burdened with expectations of others. We need to be careful of not adding a new burden on our brothers and sisters of measuring up to a subjective standard of more “vulnerability, authenticity, and empathy.”
I agree with your post – we do sometimes suck at empathy.
However, I think you’re a bit too hars with sis. Stephens. She says that “you may be right. I don’t completely understand your challenges.” Then she continues to explain that when she herself has been in a situation, where she has felt like nobody understand her, she has came to know that Someone understands. Her point is that there is “the One who does understand”. And this is the good news of the Gospel.
Yes, her last sentence almost ruins that idea. But I think she mentions her sisters and aunts because she knows that many think that church leaders live in a bubble, where they have no contact with those who have challenges with addictions or same-sex attractions etc. She just want to let people know that church leaders have some experience of these things.
Plus, she then continues to explain that our responsibility is “to unite in empathy and compassion as we support other members of the family of God in their struggles”. So, she mentions her mother and daughter etc. in order to make the point of importance of showing empathy. This I guess is also the point of this post.
Thank you for a thought-provoking post. Empathy is not only hard for Mormons, it is hard for humans.
I think there are a few impulses in Mormonism that might make having empathy harder, though in my experience many people overcome those. For instance, the gospel is supposed to bring us happiness and joy. So we may be tempted to suppress our own pain and trials and put on a happy face as a sign that we are living and enjoying the fruits of the gospel. Also, we like to share stories of times when, after a trial of faith, we were blessed. But these well-intentioned stories can unintentionally communicate a lack of empathy to those who are in the middle of their trial, or never receive the blessing.
We also want to fix problems, so when someone is looking for understanding, we instead offer them solutions. This solution-focused approach is such an ingrained aspect of Mormonism. Just think of our Sunday meetings and the Sunday School answers. There is an aversion to unanswered questions, to dilemma and paradox.
None of these things in and of themselves are bad. But they can prevent us from expressing empathy.
Niklas- part of my including Sis Stephens is because I thought others were being too harsh on her, and I think she deserves credit for just barely missing the mark. What she said did not connect with many people, and that’s the healing part of empathy. I think in real life with real people she IS empathetic based on her words, but how she tried to connect seemed generic. Ymmv
Joel- I hoped my first sentence established that I think imam nature works against having an empathetic view. I think mormondom it’s worse with infertility because the culture and expectations of family and children at the center make everyone think it’s their business. I liked your points about our “faith promoting story” habit and being “problem fixers”. I hadn’t thought of those.
JI- I knew that many would find this a harsh critique; but I hope it was communicated there are no hard feelings to forgive. This is my perspective of what ministry and discipleship are, steeped in empathy. Others also write/speak about a small certain area that they think the saints can challenge themselves to do better in; I’m no uchtdorf but I think if he can get away with telling the saints their being Pharisees when focusing on numbers I can try a thoughtful post about empathy. Even if it comes off to many as overly critical.
I understand. In your original post, you wished that sis. Stephens would have actually opened up and shared her griefs and the things that broke her heart. That could have helped to connect to her audience better. But then again, maybe the things she have had hard time are such that they had not compared to the list she had just given (death of a child, infertility etc.), and so she decided not to say anything about her personal struggles.
When I find people opening up to me about their deepest struggles, even if they seem to not compare to anything listed, my heart is always touches that someone would share; and I feel I can say – I can see that was really hard for you.
After empathy happens humans become closer; more “one and united” (think Zion like) a lack of empathy creates distance.
And JI empathy isn’t something you check off a list of things to do; it’s like a muscle that the more you use the more you become better at. It’s a way of being. I think a lot of saints might not want to be empathetic; they have their own business to worry about, thank you very much; and don’t want to care for others that way. If so that makes me sad.
“What if Sis. Stephens would have actually opened up and shared her griefs and the things that broke her heart?”
What if those things involved other people (which is likely), and she wanted to respect the privacy of those other people?
If you were her son or daughter who was a drug addict or rapist whatever, how would you feel if your mom shared over the pulpit to the world?
Also, my too-common reaction to others in trouble is to be silent for fear of saying The Wrong Thing and offending. I am not sure that is helpful either–and there is a whole body of literature in the cancer research about how stigmafying that can be.
I don’t agree with your title, I do think that the Mormons who I know at least try.
a lady in our ward donated some of her eggs. She got some flack and push back for that. some people thought she did wrong. When the topic came up, a friend said to me, “why would anyone do in vitro? why don’t they just adopt?” This friend happened to ha’ve nine of her own children.I don’t think she was aware of my experiences with failed IVF and failed adoptions. On the other hand, another poor reaction from people when I tell them about my infertility is, “oh I feel so guilty because I get pregnant so easily!” Now not only am i infertile, but I’m responsible for your guilt.
“I do not hold grudges or get angry or offended when people make these unkind and painful statements.” Thanks for this, coming from someone who has sometimes said The Wrong Thing.
In high school I ran away (literally!) from my abusive father and stayed with a friend. After I shared my angry feelings with her, she told me I needed to forgive him. It was an emotional punch to the gut. She had no idea how hard I’d tried or how much I beat myself up over not being able to. But I recognized that (1) she simply did not have the benefit of my experience — and I wouldn’t have it any other way, and (2) she thought she was helping by pointing me to a Sunday school solution.
Thanks for helping me empathize with the critics of Sis. Stephens’s talk. I hadn’t understood before; I admit to having been in the “they’re just choosing to be offended” camp.
Regarding your proposed solution for her, Sis. Stephens may have teetered on “I know exactly how you feel. Once we had to try for over two months before we got pregnant” had she gone there. How do you balance sharing vulnerability vs. changing the focus to yourself/making a wholly inadequate comparison/revealing how little you do actually understand?
There’s a comedian who talks about being heckled by a guy in a wheelchair who says “I’m in a wheelchair, funny man. Make a joke about me!” The comedian is on the spot and uncomfortable because the guy is so bitter, and the crowd is starting to feel bad about the guy in the wheelchair, so the comedian points out they should really be feeling bad for him (the comedian) for being put on the spot.
So he asks the guy what happened, and the guy says he dove into a swimming pool that was too shallow six months earlier. It’s too soon, too horrible, and just too sad to make jokes about, but here they are in a comedy show people have paid money for. So the comedian says, “Well, you’ll never do that again.”
I think empathy can be hard. Sometimes it is impossible to understand someone else’s struggles.
You can’t explain what a mission is like to someone who has never served a mission. But returned missionaries instantly understand you.
You can’t imagine what it feels like to lose a sibling to death. When I lost my sister to cancer, the only person who understood me was someone who had a similar experience. She was a godsend. Eight years later, I lost a brother in a car accident. I suppose having the experience repeated, did help me to know the pain that I was about to suffer, but it was still excruciating. The only thing that has helped is time. It’s been 17 years since I lost my sister, and next month will be 9 years since I lost my brother. The sharp pains are gone, now they are a dull pain. Most of the time, I am fine, but if you catch me at just the right moment, I still tear up.
My parents are both in their upper 70s. I still have a hard time imagining the pain of their death. I can’t imagine not being able to call up dad and ask for advice. But I can’t call my brother or sister anymore, so I have an inkling, but it is just an inkling.
I lost a neighbor about a year ago. I have tried to have empathy for his wife. She is struggling mightily still. I don’t know that I have said anything all that profound to her. Sometimes the pain of death just plain sucks, and there isn’t much to say. Empathy can be VERY HARD. Sometimes what is needed is simply time to pass (which is what my friend–my godsend–told me.) Distance from the pain sometimes is the best remedy.
What is truly insufferable, IMO, is the Mormon tendency (maybe all religious people do this) to co-opt others’ tragedies for an object lesson or for their own purposes. A friend was sharing a story about one of her closest friends who got a diagnosis of cancer. She had a lot of close-knit friends taking care of her and her family, so there wasn’t much for the RS to do to help. So the RS president went to the woman with cancer and told her it was too bad for the ward that she had so many friends because the ward could really use the service opportunity, and couldn’t she tell her friends to back off??? Likewise, Pres. Packer’s statements about not making a funeral an homage to the deceased but rather an object lesson with the deceased in the starring role is very off-putting.
“You can’t imagine what it feels like to lose a sibling to death”
I’m sorry to hear about that, losing a family member is beyond horrible.
I have been on both ends of that and you are right it is extremely difficult to know what to say. Being on the other end, people say some stupid things. Some are trying to be nice and consoling but are just awkward, while others are just plain jerks.
Personally, I prefer to be alone after losing someone i am close to. That is just my personal preference.
There can be a lot of solace in being left alone and be given time and space after a tragedy – I didn’t tell ANYONE about our IVF because if it failed I didn’t want a million people draining my emotional energy by reminding me of it over and over to express their sympathy. But when I’m at a place I can share, the best thing is for people to say, “I have no idea how that feels. I am so sorry.”
For example I had a younger sister die as a baby. I was in kindergarten. I don’t remember a lot but I do know my parents struggled with it as anyone would. Even though I have infertility I tell my mother, “I have no idea what it would be like to lose a child – I truly am sorry.” and likewise my mother has said the same thing back to me. We try to see things from their shoes and can’t even imagine – acknowledge you can’t know; and share your love.
that’s always the right thing to say.
After the death of a loved one I withdrew. I realised how much I didn’t know , how much I didn’t understand. I went to church less frequently, I said I needed my own space. Then I got bitter no-one came ’round. When I attended testimony meeting I used the space to let the ward know they had failed to be empathic. To read my mind and give me what I needed.
I’m older now and realise that I burnt a lot of bridges during that experience. I was just angry. I scared people- they were, as some other commenters have humanly shared, scared of saying the wrong thing . And it all would have been wrong because there are no answers for human pain that will make it go away-we ‘suffer into truth’ as the ancients said.
I try to get this right for my own kids-but I don’t. How much less likely am I to get it right for complete strangers? I think the simple and timeworn phrase-‘I’m sorry for your loss’ takes some beating.
I am baffled by suffering, my own and others. I don’t like dealing with any more. It takes all the strength I have not to be a miserable person full-time. So, no, I no longer want to mourn with those that mourn because I would never finish mourning. I try to be happy and enjoy what I can, and invite others into whatever enjoyment I can. I don’t go to funerals unless they are family or close friends, and my profession involves working with the bewildered, such as myself. Other than that I do what is in front of me in terms of service and not make a project out of someone else’s suffering. Best foot forward. I try not to trouble trouble, til trouble troubles me.
I think I take greater comfort from the idea that there is a Saviour who welcomes all our grief with tenderness and has made possible redemption. I expect less from others. I know that we poor human beings cannot take much truth. I respect people more. I actually try to emote less and leave the Saviour to be ‘a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief’. I do what I can.
When my ex-husband left the church, SO many people at church gave me the response, “He’ll come back, just give him time.” or “You know he’ll come back.” Well, maybe he will come back to the church. But he hasn’t yet, and if he does, it’s not going to affect me much personally because we’re divorced now (due to reasons other than him leaving the church). Take-away message: don’t try to predict the future to comfort someone.
future predictions: bad. it makes the predictor feel better about your situation, though.
I think we don’t make it ok for people to be sad and in their grief sometimes bc it makes us uncomfortable. Rick Warren had a son commit suicide and his wife posted a beautiful post about how hard it is a year later for people to respond, “You aren’t over that yet? We gave you a year, get over it.” Their grief had transformed them and they would never be the same.
Sometimes the Gospel of Jesus Christ isn’t happiness but grief — sometimes the best place to become “at one” with Christ is in the depth of their sorrows.
Part of the problem with empathy—particularly in the case of Sister Stephens—is relative privation. She could have shared her personal challenges but, really, what could anyone living in a first world suburb that say that could ever compare to what most people through most of history have experienced
I’ve had five miscarriages and some very horrific experiences (that had nothing to do with my choices or those of my family, but were caused by truly evil people). But none of my (living) children have died or been killed. I was never trafficked for sex. We didn’t starve to death. In a worldwide church, anyone coming from America is going to seem privileged and using personal trials to make a point about empathy strains credulity. It’s all relative, right? So the important point is that it’s not so much the actual trial, but what the gospel provides to those in need.
Another part of the problem with empathy is that every single person on earth wants to have their needs met at least slightly differently than the next person. No one will ever, ever, ever completely understand another, so we’re all just shlepping through it doing our best.
What about empathy for those who suck at empathy? 🙂 I say that because I spend a few years making a VERY serious effort to listen, to pray, to serve the women I was assigned to VT. Very sincerely, no matter WHAT I did and now matter HOW careful and thoughtful I tried to be, it NEVER really worked. It NEVER really helped much.
One example: the woman I taught (whose mother was the general RS president from 74-84—I was doomed from the get go…) mentioned that one of the things she loved most in the world was fresh corn on the cob, right after it was picked. Like the kind you get at a local farm stand on the edge of a field. This was in winter, so I wrote it down and determined that I would be at the FIRST fresh corn crop of spring and get her a bunch.
The day came and I bought a big paper bag filled with corn, right out of the field. I went to her home and she invited me into the family room, clutching the offering. There on her island counter was, of course, a stack of three dozen ears of fresh corn on the cob.
Par for the course. Kill me.
I think maybe it is the process of trying to do the impossible—to care for someone we can’t ever completely understand—is just part of the human growth process. 🙂
I also feel obligated to share that whenever I read/think about empathy, I always think of the times I’ve screwed up, and that’s hard to face. I guess I should use that feeling to be patient/forgiving with/of those who have good intentions but say hurtful words. Or am I just stretching this a bit too far to make myself feel better?
“that’s always the right thing to say.”
Actually, that was one of the Wrong Things that nearly lost me a friendship for a while. They didn’t want to hear that I was sorry for them.
Glad that it worked for you, but apparently different people are different.
My husband was quite bothered by that portion of Sister Stephens talk. It felt hollow to him, and made him assume that, actually, she hasn’t experienced anything very difficult. Like you, I tried to give credit to her intentions — I think she was trying to go to an empathetic place, but it just didn’t quite get there in a satisfying way. In contrast, I remember a wonderful talk from Sister Reeves a few conferences ago, where she shared some of her painful life experiences. Were they as painful as some things people go through? Not at all, but I was completely moved by her vulnerability and honesty.
I don’t think Mormons suck at empathy, but I think, like most people, we could do much better, which is why it’s a continual thread throughout my classes and I bring Dr. Brown’s work into the conversation a lot. I think Joel hits on some important things at play: trying to be solution-focused and focusing on happiness/joy. One particular experience always comes to mind for me. I was just reenrolled at BYU after dropping out for a couple of years and spending that time in CA in therapy, dealing with physical/mental/emotional issues. I kid you not that in one of my very first Relief Society meetings back there, the Relief Society President said, “I just feel so sorry for people from, like, California who have to go to therapy because they don’t know how to draw on the powers of heaven and prayer.” That statement is not an empathy problem alone, but wow, I felt immediately there was no point in developing any sort of relationship with her. She would never understand me, or perhaps even try.
Another dimension of empathy beyond hyper-focus on the words we say, because it is admittedly hard to know what to say in some situations, is our body language and physical responses. I am grateful for Elder Marvin J. Ashton’s talk, “There Are Many Gifts,” that outlines some spiritual gifts that help us show empathy. The “gift of weeping” is particularly significant to me, and has helped people to feel my concern and empathy when words were insufficient.
I think you are on to something Kristine. Empathy is bigger than “feeling someone else’s pain.” Empathy requires you accept someone else’s thoughts, culture, and perspective as well. It’s like in the Robin Williams movie “What Dreams May Come” when he tells his crazy wife: “what’s true in our minds is true, whether some people know it or not.”
In the film, Robin Williams learns to exercise complete empathy by actually going to hell to hang out there with his depressed, insane, suicidal wife. By going to hell, he isn’t trying to tell her to “snap out of it” but rather entering her madness and accepting it as his own, going down to actually live there.
Another film that demonstrates this is Shadowlands. At the end of the film, C. S. Lewis’s wife dies, and his stepson says “I don’t believe in God.” Now in the past, C. S. Lewis always has a positive religious explanation for everything. He wrote a whole book purportedly solving “The Problem of Pain.” But at the end of the film, C. S. Lewis finally learns to just shut up and weep. So he holds the boy and weeps, without trying to explain to him something about God. He finally learned empathy.
This is also what Jesus learned when the women follow him to Golgotha weeping and he says, “don’t weep for me, weep for yourselves.” Why does Jesus say this? Because He empathizes with them, seeing how much their lives suck and are going to suck when the Romans sack Jerusalem. Jesus’s answer for us is: weep, mourn, wail, woe, destruction.
That’s why Mormons have a hard time. They haven’t ever actually read Lamentations in the Bible. They don’t understand tragedy. They have an answer for everything.
To exercise empathy, they must learn, like Job, in the face of a brutal, uncompromising God, to say “I put my hand over my mouth.”
I think one of the things that add to Mormons seeming to be less empathetic is the added toolset we have in our religion that can be used to minimize or dismiss the pain of others (and ourselves)
– It’ll be fixed in the next life
– Asked for/is being punished/rewarded for something in the pre-existence
– Christ suffered everything (so you shouldn’t)
– You must be doing something right to have such great challenges
– You’ll be so rewarded in the afterlife for going through this
None of this is empathy, nor is it the truth or our beliefs. These are handing someone a brick and feeling better for how well you helped them build a wall.
Mormons do have a hard time with empathy. Many good reasons have been stated. We also have this line of thought that despair and sadness come from Satan. Godly people always keep an eternal perspective, continually optimistic. It feels like people who talk about pain and sadness are supposed to refer to it in the past tense (meaning they’ve overcome the trial).
I will say that the home and visiting teachings programs have the potential to provide an empathetic support system. One of the most touching moments I saw was when my mom’s home teachers came over a couple weeks after my dad’s funeral. One of the men was a widower, and he confided that the pain never totally goes away. His wife had passed 5 years earlier, yet he still dealt with waves of grief. We may not be so hot with empathy at an institutional level, but I do think there are successes at the individual level.
One experience that has stuck with me for over 20 years was at a funeral of a 13-yr-old kid who I’d grown up with. He had always been in my classes at church. His family had been on a bike ride and he got hit by a car. The dad speaking at the funeral made the statement that God wasn’t happy about the death of the boy. He was crying and mourning with the family over the loss of their son and brother. I realized later that the dad was fighting against the lines he’d likely already heard – that the family should be joyful because the plan of salvation provided a way for them to be reunited with their son, or that they should be satisfied that the boy was needed more on the other side of the veil. I don’t remember much else about the funeral, but I do remember the feeling I had when he said it.
Frank you stated your comment exactly how it feels when I get an unempathetic comment. It creates distance. An emotional wall goes up to help protect from future pain around that person.
Nate I like your examples, empathy kind of requires you to feel with someone. A small glimpse of grief. I had a good conversation earlier today about how we kind of have an aversion to pain, suffering, and grief. It makes us uncomfortable and we don’t want to see it.
Is it possible to be perfectly empathetic and always say the right thing? I suppose not. Is it always possible to be better than we currently are? Yes.
I thought your story of the corn was beautiful. The fact that she was swimming in corn in no way diminishes your offering or your love. Perhaps those types of experiences (I always feel so stupid in those moments!) are just to remind us of our relationship with God. He has everything He needs, yet he pours out His spirit when we offer something to him. I could be in a room full of flowers, but if my son brought me a dandelion it would have such value. I mean, after I showered all the pollen off. Wish you were my VT!
I struggled with infertility as well. At various times during my experience, I found some of the “things you shouldn’t say” very helpful. Anything that gave me hope or attempted to explain the unexplainable was appreciated. Most of all, I appreciated when anyone tried to understand how it felt from my perspective or shared similar experiences. The worst, for me, was pity, because I rarely felt pitiful. I needed to feel hopeful.
The very worst, though, would have been if people had avoided talking about it for fear of saying the wrong thing. My feelings were not so tender that I wanted people to be careful around me. That would have made me feel as though it was really, really bad and there was no hope for the future. I just wanted people to be real. And if someone inadvertently said something awkward, I assumed they had meant it to come out differently and simply appreciated that they cared enough to try.
So, you see, we really are all different.
Mary Ann, I think you’re right: VT and HT are structured programs that encourage connection and empathy (ministry).
Handle With Care: I’ve been thinking about your comment, and I like it because it shows the depth of tragedy and I think you’re right, in certain situations no one can reach you in your grief but the Savior. And we need to find appropriate ways to express grief and we need to have lower expectations for others. All true things.
For how small my “stretching opportunity” is there are only a few that I have felt empathy from who have not been through it. But when I was in the right place I looked for a group of infertile people who get it.
Do I think every Saint I meet should be sitting and connecting with me over infertility. No. But I think others find other ways to connect with me.
I think we can just a group we can do better. If certain griefs seem impossible to do right does that mean we completely give up on developing empathy? I don’t think so. At the very least learn not to say the obviously crappy things.
I really dislike home teaching because you can’t assign someone to be empathetic and if it is genuine it is hard to know that it is when it is assigned. I generally don’t know my home teachers in any real way, yet you expect me to share my struggles with them? No one wants to feel like a project. I don’t want to feel guilty for my lack of cooperation in allowing you to serve me. I don’t want to be served, I just want to be accepted as I am. Before you can have empathy you have to have trust. I trust very few people in the church to actually share feelings with. I think that is even a bigger challenge for men than women. Men are expected to be strong and aren’t allowed to have issues. How can you have empathy in a culture that is so focused on “putting on a perfect face” as Sister Wixom said.
#1, JJ, and those who “liked” it.
It seems to me you proved Kristine’s point that we need to work on empathy.
I liked the post, and I can’t believe the first comment was to criticize it.
I think many suffer from not following Wiseman’s key #3 to empathy, nonjudgmental.
I like the post a lot because whether we suck at it or not, I think everyone could improve their empathy skills. I think a good start is to appreciate that everyone has unique sensitivities.
We have all heard about the man who wept because he had no shoes, until he saw a man with no legs. I used to think this was meaningful, I suppose I still do, to some extent. It might help to deal with a tough situation to appreciate others may be going through something worse. But frankly, I don’t like it anymore. What am I supposed to glean? I can only feel sad about my situation if I can’t find someone in a worse situation? By that rationale, no one on earth can feel bad about their situation unless they happen to be the literal king of pain. That seems a bit insensitive. It’s basically saying, as long as someone out there has it worse, deal with it. That’s not really a message I want to share. We all feel bad about things. What I feel bad about you might think is nothing. What you feel bad about I might think is not a big deal. But I would hope we can empathize as human beings because we know what it’s like to feel sad, disappointed, lost, betrayed, etc., etc., although not to the same degree, in all likelihood, and not because we have shared the exact same experiences, but because we have known deep sorrow/pain (whatever it may be) for one reason or another. I would be careful not to say we know exactly how anyone else feels, but we can all relate to some degree.
When someone is trying to empathize with us, I think we need to try and look past the words to see the intent. Different people can be comforted or offended by the same things. This has been illustrated in the comments. Some want to be felt sorry for, some think that is the worst thing to say, some want to be told it will be ok, some want to be left alone, it’s different for everyone. Hopefully, the effort will be noticed, even if the wrong things are said. Whether you say the right thing or the wrong thing the fact that you are trying (hopefully) will come through.
Personally, I feel most comfortable doing the following, but I understand this could be effective with some people and not with others, this is just how I approach it. I make it a point to never say “I know how you feel,” even if I have been through the same experience, because I don’t think anyone can ever know for certain how someone else feels. I try and listen and simply express that I feel sad because they feel sad (or whatever the emotion might be). If I feel that I can relate, I might explain a similar experience so they won’t feel alone in whatever they are feeling, and it’s a way to ask if that is what they are feeling. I usually try to convey that I can’t imagine exactly what they feel but just that I’m sorry they feel that way. I also ask a lot of questions, maybe they just need to express their feelings. I only offer advice if I am asked for it. But maybe I’m doing it all wrong. I don’t know. I do try, though.
I think another important part of empathy is being a good friend all the time. I think it would be very hard to be a good empathizer when disaster strikes someone we know, unless we have been a kind, sensitive friend throughout. The people who offered you the common responses to infertile couples probably didn’t know you that well, if they did, I think they would have known better what to say. And if they didn’t know you that well, I think they should avoid any attempt at empathy over such a serious thing like having children. Empathy is not something an acquaintance should be undertaking. True friends only.
My experience has been that people in general are trying to be helpful and empathetic, but we all fail to one degree or another from one opportunity to another, Mormon or otherwise.
By design we have numerous opportunities to try to develop our empathy quotient, succeeding well on occasion and falling short on others. We are all so different, with our needs for empathy changing even as we endeavor to be empathetic towards others. Some try harder than others. Some are so wrapped up in their need for empathy that they’re almost oblivious to how poorly they empathize with those around them. Still others can be suffocating with their well-intended empathy. There are so many pitfalls as we stumble along the hills and valleys of bearing one another’s burdens.
When others fall short or are way over the top we find there’s only One who truly gets it right all the time. Thus, again by design, we turn to God to fill our needs for empathy as well as to seek inspiration when trying to be empathetic.
I find it’s easier to be patient with others poor, but well meaning attempts when my needs are met by heavenly means, even though such often has a timing different from my own.
Thus, I think part of any given challenge or trial is to learn to have empathy for those who fall short having empathy for us, and to be faithful in patient waiting upon the Lord.
Forbearance isn’t something I’d ever seek to learn all on my own. Probably none of this stuff is. Whoever designed mortality did a crazy encompassing job.
Great post, Kristine….good stuff to ponder, pray on, and strive toward more authentically. I cannot imagine what you’ve been going through, but my heart goes out to you in its utmost measure of care, even though my caring doesn’t change a thing. Still, it’s all I have to give, so I give it all. I wish I could give you a perfect pregnancy that would grow an adorable baby perfect for you and Mr. A. I surely do wish I could.
Reading this I was reminded of a recent question in my kids online seminary. They were asked to think of someone they knew who had suffered/was suffering a trial and to outline the ways in which that person remained faithful/ demonstrated faith/ continued to serve/ what an example they were. I felt very uncomfortable with the question, and I think this post points to why. The person was seen as an object lesson, not as someone with whom to empathise. If this is a typical example of the way our curricula treat trials and suffering then we’ve got a long way to go.
Alison, likewise you can be my VT! “Oh, shoot me now!” is something I frequently think as my efforts to be thoughtful and helpful go awry or are otherwise misunderstood.
Comment no. 1 was not criticism of the original posting. It was a different but honest perspective.
So based on some responses I’m not sure everyone watched the video. Rarely does a response make anything better, what helps people is to make a connection. I suppose that’s why we have the Holy Ghost to help us know how we can try to best make a connection.
And we can be self aware enough to never silver-line stuff for people and become the yeah-but deer in the story and instead become the bear who doesn’t have anything other to say than “I don’t know what to say right now but I’m glad you told me.”
Brenlee: infertility is very situational: the first 3-5 years you live on hope. After that God asks you to accept his will and time-table; the hope givers seem to not trust what you’ve been taught to accept. but like I said I suppose YMMV because 2 yrs infertility is different than 8 or 15 or 20. (shrug)
Rockies Gma: I loved your post; what great insights of exercising our own empathy muscles to see others as God seems them when they fall short in empathy (I hope that’s what I tried to do with Sis. Stephens).
Dexter: I loved your comment about the man without shoes. Sometimes there’s a tendency to use the suffering olympics to try to teach gratitude. Often it turns to marginalizing real pain and suffering of others – even if for you that thing wouldn’t be that hard.
In the end I think having a softened heart and attempting to SEE others as they really are and finding ways to connect is at the heart of discipleship. I just hope that as prompted and where appropriate; we find ways to connect, build bridges, repair bridges, and be more self aware.
Sometimes I wish Bednar had given a talk about “choosing not to offend” in addition to “choosing not to be offended.” We need both.
A few thoughts:
1) Often in VT training, advice is given deal with difficult problems by “just listening” and “just say ‘hmmmmm’ and nod your head understandingly because there is sometimes nothing you can do to help and nothing to make it better”. Have you ever shared something painful with someone and all they said was “hmmmmm” in acknowledgement? It’s so maddeningly inadequate.
2) Our problem with empathy is linked to our inappropriate reliance on the prosperity doctrine. IF you are righteous enough THEN you will be blessed and not experiencing this trial. Of course, this is illogically also given with the advice that ‘the Lord will not give you more trials than you can handle.’
3)You’ve heard the joke, “friends help you move, real friends help you move the body.” As quirky and inappropriate as the joke is, it’s a good example of a deep level of connectedness that is necessary for empathy.
4) Some less empathetic comments I’ve heard at church or work over the years:
-“At least your grandpa/father/mother was old when they died, right?
-“You don’t have kids? You should be a foster parent.”
-“I’m praying for you. Take care.” (Said to me 6 hours after I lost my home in a hurricane and all I had left were the clothes on my back . . . pajamas without a bra or shoes.)
-After sharing a bad story- someone will inevitably play ‘one-ups-manship’ and share a WORSE one . . . making your story sound whimpy in comparison.
Sometimes folks, when troubled, just need a listening ear. Maybe that’s why Heavenly Father designed us with TWO ears and ONE mouth, and perhaps we ought to employ them accordingly!
“What would you think, if I sang out a tune, would you stand up and walk out on me? Lend me your ear, and I sing you a song, and I’ll try not to sing out of key…” Unfortunately, even Ringo, the least vocally-talented member of the Fab Four, can sing circles around yours truly. Mine singing voice would greatly try the ears of mine friends.
THIS is what we need (fword warning) empathy cards: