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Friendship, loneliness, and prayer: Praying about distractions from empathy

Lynne Baab • Thursday February 29 2024

Friendship, loneliness, and prayer: Praying about distractions from empathy

Imagine you and a friend are walking in your favorite park. Your friend is talking about a challenging situation at work. During the ten minutes they’re on that topic, your brain flits back and forth from their story to the bird you see flying by, your discomfort in your new walking shoes, your concern that it might start raining and you forgot your umbrella, and your own concerns about work. Oh, yes, the craft project you’re working on these days also comes to mind.

You might think something is wrong with you that you can’t stay focused on your friend’s story and the emotions that lie behind it. On the contrary, our minds are so wonderfully agile that moving between topics is completely normal. We can rejoice that we are capable of thinking about so many different things. Our ability to juxtapose ideas is a root of creativity and problem-solving.

However, when we want to listen carefully to someone and show empathy to them, we have to consider how to deal with this wonderful yet challenging characteristic of our brain’s function. When I did interviews for my book on listening, many of the interviewees talked about “inner noise” as the biggest challenge to listening with empathy. After I finished the interviews, I had the privilege of a conversation with a therapist who teaches at a training program for counselors.

He said they teach their students to think about a parking lot. When the thought about the missing umbrella comes to mind while trying to listen to someone, they suggest that the listener park the thought like a car in a parking lot. Perhaps later, the listener might want to retrieve that car from the parking lot. Sometimes parking the thought makes it go away entirely.

Like so many aspects of listening, this is more easily said than done. It takes practice. My conversation with that therapist took place almost exactly a decade ago, and I have improved since then at noticing what I’m thinking when someone is talking, and then setting it aside. I still find it hard but worthwhile.

The three verbs I have been highlighting related to empathy are helpful in returning our focus over and over to the person who’s speaking. Identify with. Experience. Understand. I want to identify with my friend, so I’ll let that bird fly by and return my focus to trying to identify with them. Or, I will return my attention to trying to experience some of the emotions my friend describing. Or, I can set aside the missing umbrella and return to trying to understand.

Note the way I have described this process—I am using the word “return.” Return my focus. Return to trying to understand. We will always be distracted by random thoughts. Nothing is wrong with us that we do that. We can even rejoice that our brains are so flexible and creative. If we desire to empathize, we need to keep returning our thoughts to the person in front of us.

We can pray for several things related to this process.

Lord, help me stop judging myself for my random thoughts. Criticizing ourselves for our wandering and creative minds adds another layer of thoughts to set aside. I’ll repeat—nothing is wrong with us when our minds wander.

Jesus, help me visualize that parking lot where I can park my random thoughts and help me park them over and over. We need Jesus’s companionship and guidance to figure out a picture that works for us in this desire to deal with distractions. Maybe we need to let the thoughts go like leaves on a stream. Or like dandelion puffs in the wind.

Holy Spirit, help me embrace the word “return.”  It is next to impossible to keep a focus on someone else, so the challenge is to keep returning with persistence and without self-judgment. We need the power of the Holy Spirit to park the thoughts that race through our minds, and return over and over to the words and emotions we are trying to focus on, to the human behind the story.

Triune God, show love through me to the people I try to listen to. Our listening is so finite and incomplete. God is the great listener who enables us to convey love to others. We don’t have to be perfect. We can trust that God is working through us.

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Next week: What blocks empathy in addition to “inner noise”? Illustration by Dave Baab: Lower Hutt Valley, Wellington, New Zealand. If you’d like to receive an email when I post on this blog, sign up below under “subscribe.”

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