Friendship, Listening, and Empathy: A Prayer GuideTwo Hands: Grief and Gratitude in the Christian LifeSabbath Keeping FastingA Renewed SpiritualityNurturing Hope: Christian Pastoral Care in the Twenty-First CenturyThe Power of ListeningJoy Together: Spiritual Practices for Your CongregationPersonality Type in CongregationsPrayers of the Old TestamentPrayers of the New TestamentSabbathFriendingA Garden of Living Water: Stories of Self-Discovery and Spiritual GrowthDeath in Dunedin: A NovelDead Sea: A NovelDeadly Murmurs: A NovelBeating Burnout in CongregationsReaching Out in a Networked WorldEmbracing MidlifeAdvent DevotionalDraw Near: Lenten Devotional by Lynne Baab, illustrated by Dave Baab

Friendship, loneliness, and prayer: Praying to keep empathy flowing

Lynne Baab • Wednesday March 6 2024

Friendship, loneliness, and prayer: Praying to keep empathy flowing

Do you care about what other people are feeling? If your answer is yes, most of the time, then you have already overcome the biggest obstacle to empathy. The most common empathy block is simply not caring about what the other person feels or experiences. I’m assuming most of the readers of this blog try to care. Sometimes, especially with challenging people, we might need to pray for a caring heart. Sometimes, especially when we are stressed or tired, we may need to pray for a big infusion of love from the Holy Spirit. However, I sense from the feedback to my blog posts and other resources on empathy that most of my readers care a lot and want to improve their ability to show care.

I wrote last week about the kinds of “inner noise” that are obstacles to empathy, and I tried to argue that a wandering mind is a sign of creativity. Instead of criticizing ourselves for those moments when our minds go all over the place, we can rejoice in the creativity and productivity of our brains, while also praying to return to our conversation partner’s concerns when our minds wander away.

This week I want to zero in on four specific kinds of inner noise, those thoughts that impede our focus on another person.

1. Our need to fix things. I’ve put this one first, because giving practical advice is my own go-to conversational tactic that blocks empathy. While the other person is talking, my brain is spinning to possible solutions. I’d like to believe that fewer of them spill out of my mouth these days, but who knows for sure. Some advice columnists advise asking, “Do you want to brainstorm solutions, or do you want a listening ear?” I’ve never actually done that, but I often say, “Here’s some unsolicited advice, and you can take or leave it.” However, asking the question about what my friend wants is probably a better idea, as is parking the advice in the parking lot and returning to paying attention to what my friend is feeling.

2. Our discomfort with sadness, sorrow, and grief. I get mad every time I hear a version of the too common view that sadness, sorrow, and grief should be brief. Sure, the prevailing wisdom goes, feel sad after a divorce or death or other loss, but get over it quickly. I also get mad at my own impatience with people who are grieving for a long time. I return over and over to the Psalms to see the depth of grief that various psalm writers express. Sit with sadness. Feel the sorrow. In order to be present with others’ sadness, sorrow, and grief—without the need to try to rush the person through it—we must gain comfort in sitting with our own.

3. Our discomfort with anger. One of our extended family members adopted a baby from Guatemala 20 years ago. The adoptee learned that he has strong indigenous heritage, and from the age of about 15, he has been learning about indigenous issues from around the world and especially in Central America. He is angry. He is disgusted, aggravated, and resentful. He experiences rage and contempt for what white people have done. (Yes, I consulted a wonderful emotion-feeling wheel to find the words to describe what I have heard him express.) I find it hard to listen to him, even though I want to feel empathy. I find it harder to listen to anger than sorrow, which is hard enough. I think it would be wise for me to pray and ponder why that is.

4. Our discomfort with silence.  In order for friends and family members to express what they are experiencing and feeling, they often need time to formulate their thoughts. Time in silence. Time when we’re not jumping in with the first thought that flies across our minds. Time when we’re not giving advice. I am committed to leaving silence in conversations, but I find it difficult. I often jump in with a question. Sure, my questions usually follow up what the person has said, but every question guides a conversation. My questions might guide my conversation partner in a direction that is not helpful to them. Much better to let them guide where they’re going.

Becoming aware of these empathy blocks can help us cope with them more wisely and pray about them more specifically.  

God of honesty and creativity, thank you for the diversity of emotions expressed in the Psalms, and thank you that the psalm writers seem so comfortable with a variety of emotions. I confess my need to give advice and to steer people through sadness and anger quickly. I confess my discomfort with silence. I can see how hard it is for me to resist asking questions that send conversations into directions I’m interested in, rather than giving friends and family members silence so they talk about what matters to them. Forgive me for my self-absorption. Guide my listening. Give me your empathetic and compassionate heart.

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Next week: everyday initiative in friendship. Illustration by Dave Baab: Coronet Peak, New Zealand. If you’d like to get an email when I post on this blog, sign up below under “subscribe.”

Related posts:

The talk I recently gave on empathy

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