Love Like That: Self-Giving
When teaching my counseling students at the university, I use a simple metaphor to make the distinction between sympathy and empathy. I tell them that sympathy is standing on the shore and throwing a life ring out to a person who is struggling in the water. Every decent human being would do this. It flows with our adrenaline.
Empathy is much riskier. Empathy is diving into the water and thrashing around in the cold waves with that person to bring them to safety. Not everyone does that. In fact, it’s so rare that we call these people “heroes.”
And it’s just as heroic when we do this in our relationships. Why? Because empathy is risky. It will change you. Once you immerse yourself in someone else’s predicament or situation, you won’t look at him or her the same way. You’ll have a new perspective that makes you more patient, more grace-giving, and more caring—more loving. . . .
So here’s the question: Are you willing to put yourself second in order to put another person first? Are you willing to be changed? I want to say it again: Once you empathize with another, you become a different person—maybe slightly, maybe significantly. But be assured, you change. You don’t look at that person—whether it be a friend, your spouse, your child, a co-worker, or a total stranger—the same way again. Every act of accurate empathy is like a little carving from a sculptor’s chisel, causing you to have a slightly new perspective. It can’t be helped. When you imagine what life must be like in the other person’s skin, you change. Empathy shapes you. It fashions a heart that is more closely aligned with Jesus.