I was getting off the train the other day, and I saw a man get off the train ahead of me. As he got off the train, he asked a woman for money. She shook her head and said no. Then he asked another person for money, who also refused. Finally, he asked a third person for money, and got the same response.
As I followed him up the escalator out of the train station, I heard him mutter under his breath: Hasn’t anyone ever been poor?
I thought a lot about what the man said that night, because I think he highlighted an important truth about our lives: If we have experienced struggle in a particular area of our life, we tend to experience more empathy for others who are currently experiencing that same struggle.
His rhetorical question left something else unsaid. If they had been poor, if they knew what it was like to be in my place right now… they would have empathy and compassion for me.
I learned two lessons from my experience that day:
- It is important to develop empathy and compassion for others, especially if we don’t share their experience. If we haven’t been in a person’s shoes, it’s difficult to experience empathy and compassion for them. But there are a lot of experiences I haven’t had. How can I develop empathy and compassion for people who are different from me? I have two thoughts. One idea is to make sure we stay in tune with our own areas of brokenness, disappointment, and struggle. I may not share the exact same experience as another person, but I know what it is like to be broken, in pain, and in a difficult place. The second idea is to develop relationships with others who are different from me. When we develop a strong bond with another individual, we experience things that happen to the other person as if they happened to us. Developing strong relationships with others increases our ability to experience empathy and compassion for them.
- There’s at least one ‘benefit’ that can arise from our pain and struggles. When we are in pain or experiencing a difficult time, it can be hard to think about anything good that could come from our struggle. Sometimes this feels impossible. A friend quotes Romans 8:28 (And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose) and we might feel like punching him in the face. However, I have consistently found that when I experience pain and difficulty in my own life, it helps me feel empathy, compassion, and grace for others who are going through a similar experience. This is an incredible gift—to really ‘get’ the experience of another person and to be able to love that person in the midst of their pain and suffering.
Discussion: What do you think about the connection between experiencing pain and suffering, and empathy and compassion?