I don’t feel your pain

July 16, 2014

Han Lee was one of those seminarians whom our faculty adores. He worked hard, asked great questions, and listened intently. When my family was moving into the president’s house he asked if he could help me unpack my books. After he arrived we immediately launched into a fascinating conversation about calling and never made it through the first box of books. Over the past year I was thrilled to watch him claim his call to serve as a Korean-American pastor.

When Han was halfway through his last semester of seminary, his father died. As the oldest son, the expectation was that he would immediately drop out of school, take over the family business, and care for his mother. He was six weeks away from being ordained as a pastor. Instead he would now manage a struggling bar that was open most of the night. He stopped by my office on the way out of school to ask for help.

We were able to hold his place at the seminary, use a trustee’s referrals to provide legal and financial advising, and listen with broken hearts. But what none of us could do was say, “I know how you feel.” Empathy would have only been an impediment to Han’s path ahead.

We are told, as far back as Introduction to Psychology in college, that empathy is great, and sympathy is bad. In A Failure of Nerve: Leadership in the Age of the Quick Fix, rabbi and psychotherapist Edwin Friedman challenges this belief.

Empathy is the vicarious experience of someone else’s feelings. Friedman’s thesis is that this is impossible because we can only feel our own feelings. So when we try to get inside someone else under the guise of being empathetic, we are actually just violating boundaries to find more of ourselves. We can feel burdened by the pathos of others, but that is sympathy. We can suffer alongside others, which is compassion.

The word empathy is relatively new, says Friedman. It was first used in 1922 as a translation of the German Einfühlung, which art critics used to describe a process of projecting oneself into the art in order to enhance appreciation of it. But the word was so obscure that it still didn’t enter into common parlance until after World War II, when therapists began to apply it to human relationships. Projecting oneself inside the skin of another, goes the analogy, enables us to understand that person fully.

Did we suddenly become more sensitive in the last century, or does the popularity of the concept suggest something else? Empathy made it big in an era that some sociologists called the “me generation,” known for its preoccupation with finding yourself and demanding the freedom to “do your own thing.” By discovering my feelings inside you, even you are about me.

I’m certain that Friedman was correct at least about this. In more than 30 years of pastoral ministry I was never sure I understood the complexities of someone’s feelings. I may have lost a loved one to death, but I didn’t lose Gordon, who spent 60 years married to Judith. How dare I attempt to invade Judith’s most intimate chamber of grief? Isn’t it more helpful to hold her trembling hand, pray for her, and listen to her stories as my eyes well up with tears? But this is the important part—the tears are coming from someplace in me, not from her. I’m not offended if you call that sympathy or compassion.

If there is an authentically empathetic ministry in our lives, it can come only from the Holy Spirit. Mortals live within boundaries. Only the Spirit feels our deep groaning and then binds us more deeply into the life of Jesus Christ, who leads us into holy responses to our pain. This is a holy mystery that a pastor, counselor, or friend can never offer.

When I meet with a group of students who are minorities and hear their stories about how severe racism has been for them, I am dismayed and overwhelmed. When I talk with a blind student, I am amazed by her courage. When I listen to a young man who has to drop out to take care of his mother, I cannot stop weeping. But the last thing any of them wants to hear is, “I feel your pain.” They know it’s impossible.

Even if it were possible, it would rob these students of the dignity of taking responsibility for their lives, because once the empathetic listener is inside someone’s soul all the feelings are shared. And it’s a small step from that to saying the feelings are owned. Then personal responsibility is impossible. To the best of my knowledge, Martin Luther King Jr. never had an “I feel your pain” speech. Instead he mobilized the nation to take responsibility for its injustice. He pressed the African American’s responsibility to march for justice and the responsibility of the majority culture to repent.

I care a great deal about Han Lee and will stay in close touch with him. But part of my pastoral care is honoring the holy place inside him where only the Spirit can transform his complex feelings into an invitation to reclaim his life.


"the holy place inside him"

I agree there is no "moving in" to the sacrosanct life of another person. Calling on three writers and three views: Ruth Graham has written it is all we can do to be one person. Dwayne Huebner, educator, writes in The Lure of the Transcendent that we get glimpses of another and then we go on in the dark. Ellen Davis, theologian, sees empathy as a way of understanding, being able to understand, yet not of emotionally (or otherwise) invading another's situation.
"Empathy" comes across somewhat mobile and you've helped stabilize it.
From Exodus 3 of The Message, Eugene Peterson translates, God speaking to Moses, " I know all about their pain . . . .I have come down to help them."

Letter from Allan Rohlfs

I  was stunned by M. Craig Barnes’s claim, which he supports by reference to the work of Edwin Friedman, that pastors and counselors should not seek to have empathy with people in distress, be­cause none of us can understand another person’s feelings. His claim is at variance with my 40 years’ experience teaching empathic listening using the client-centered therapy (CCT) developed by Carl Rogers and with literally hundreds of empirical studies verifying the efficacy of CCT.

From Barnes’s comments and Fried­man’s book I would guess that neither have firsthand experience with empathic listening as developed by CCT. I’ve been to many conferences over the years at which comments have been made about CCT that are grossly inaccurate. Most are caricatures. Friedman refers only to his own experience, not to any empirical evidence or other testimony to support his opinions.

It’s true that saying “I know how you feel” or “I understand” virtually never conveys to the one in distress that you do understand. It only leaves them feeling lonely. But practitioners of CCT know that it is possible to understand another’s experience as it is being expressed. To do this one has to learn to put to one side one’s own reactions to the other, because the reactions stop one from listening. Listening comes from a different internal space. It takes discipline but is absolutely possible—though unfamiliar to most. 

Recently in class a student said, “Once I let go of any agenda of trying to help and instead just accompanied the other, it was easy for me to understand.” What isn’t generally known about CCT listening is that it takes focus, concentration, and discipline. “Don’t just do something, stand there” is entirely counter to our conventional and common notion of helping.

The process involves checking out one’s understanding of the other person’s feelings by saying what one has understood and asking if it is correct, and then being willing to be corrected. It takes courage to accompany a person in deep pain this way and to try to voice the very deep and raw feelings the other is experiencing. However, it is only this voicing which tells the person that you do understand. 

Is it not more helpful, Barnes asks, simply to hold a widow’s hand, listen silently, and pray? Certainly that is powerful. People are rarely listened to even silently. But it is even more powerful for one to attend to the other’s experience and to say the meaning that one is getting from the other—to test one’s understanding. One can meet the other who is weeping with sorrow by saying, “You are so sad you can cry and cry and cry.” That is being truly present with them—to understand their pain and in doing so also convey that you are not afraid of the raw and deep feelings they are experiencing.

Allan Rohlfs
Chicago, Ill.