empathic: “showing an ability to understand and share the feelings of another.”

I don’t often read when I am on a flight but I am glad I read Curt Thompson’s Anatomy of the Soul (Carol Stream, IL: Tyndale House Publishers, 2010) on a recent flight to Penang. Quoting the work of Daniel Siegel, Thompson writes:

In particular, he said that an important part of how people change — not just their experiences, but also their brains — is through the process of telling their stories to an empathic listener. When a person tells her story and is truly heard and understood, both she and the listener undergo actual changes in their brain circuitry. They feel a greater sense of emotional and relational connection, decreased anxiety, and greater awareness of and compassion for others’ suffering. Using the language of neuroscience, Dr Siegel labelled the change increased integration. (xiv)

Here is neuroscience helping us to understand why John writes that there are things that can only be shared face to face (2 John 12). What Siegel is saying is that when people share their stories, not only do they grow in their understanding of each other, they are transformed by the exchange and apparently transformed for the better.

I was really excited when I read about Siegel’s work because it affirms what we are trying to do at Graceworks — championing relational transformation through face-to-face friendships.

This has been an upward battle for many reasons. One, churches seem to see large meetings as the most important way in which people encounter God. I will be the first to admit that I am very moved to be in the midst of a thousand people singing “How Great Is Our God.” It’s a foretaste of heaven when the multitudes surround the throne of the Lamb, worshipping Him in song. Large-group meetings are great for inspiration and instruction but they are not places for life-giving face-to-face conversations. In Singapore, as in most urban cities, time and energy are in short supply and if we had to choose, many of us would choose an exciting big meeting that gives us an emotional and, hopefully, a spiritual boost. Nothing wrong with that, but are we having regular, healthy, face-to-face meet ups with our friends in Christ?

Then there is the matter of the electronic elephant in the room — the ubiquitous smart phone. Empathic listening requires focus. It’s hard work. Sherry Turkle writes:

Empathy means staying long enough for someone to believe that you want to know how they feel, not that you want to tell them what you would do in their circumstance. Empathy requires time and emotional discipline. (Reclaiming Conversation, New York, NY: Penguin Press, 2015, 173.)

It’s tough enough to have the courage to tell someone the stories that define me, my joys, and my pains. Why should I open up to someone who is not really listening, someone who keeps glancing at his or her phone? I have been guilty of this and I am trying to be more disciplined when I am listening, especially in the context of significant sharing between friends, or when I ministering to someone. It is a deliberate decision to focus on the friend in front of you and not be constantly distracted by the friend in the phone. (When I remember, I either put my phone on the table face down, or keep it in my bag.)

I am disturbed that not many Christian communities seem to be aware of the critical need for sharing and empathic listening. When was the last time you heard a sermon on the need for empathic listening or received training to do so? Ironically, it is the world that seems to be more aware of this need. Turkle talks about a conference she attended:

. . . I attended a large international meeting that had a session called “Disconnect to Connect.” There, psychologists, scientists, technologists, and members of the business community considered our affective lives in the digital age. There was widespread agreement that there is an empathy gap among young people who have grown up emotionally disconnected while constantly connected to phones, games and social media. (Reclaiming Conversation, 360)

I think it is long overdue for the church to wake up to this challenge to life and discipleship. While we are not Luddites who are blind to the many benefits that communication technology has given us, we must also listen to what the Bible and science are telling us — that face-to-face relationships are essential for life.