A Key Toward Improving Family Relations: Walk a Mile in My Shoes
Leslie E Stocker
Aw come on, Dad. Why can't I have a car? This isn't World War II. All the other fellas have one, so what are you worried about? It won't cost that much." "But, son, you don't know what you're asking for. All you want to do is go chasing around town all night. Do you want to kill yourself? And besides, it costs too much!" Sound familiar? Yes, it's another of those family arguments where each participant (in this case a father and his teenage son) is struggling to promote his/her point of view. Small arguments, however, can often lead to deep rifts between father and son, mother and daughter or, like as not, between husband and wife. The pleading son is likely to think his father is a miserly, stingy, old authoritarian who neither understands nor loves his son. On the other hand, the father might think his son is an ungrateful, selfish, young rogue, who neither cares for nor loves his father. If these feelings and interpretations linger, they will tend to harden and discolor future communication.
A widespread problem
Nations go to war for want of clear communication. People turn to drugs, alcohol and other forms of escape, because they are not heard. Friendships wax cold, and employees lose jobs because human beings refuse to see the other's point of view. There is no simple solution. Communication between human beings is a complex thing. It's miraculous when you consider the myriad personal experiences; feelings, attitudes, needs and desires that the most simple of communication must penetrate. And yet God showed communication to be a fundamental key between success and failure for human endeavor at the Tower of Babel. There is one method that improves the channels of communication between individuals — empathy. Complex communications, which involve feelings, attitudes, judgments, opinions and points of view, are greatly enhanced with the key of empathy. Empathy is the ability of one individual to see life through the eyes of another person.
Empathy in action
There are graphic biblical examples of empathy in action. One is found in I Kings 3:16-28. Young Solomon, as he ascended to his father's throne, was given great wisdom by God, so that he would be a good judge in Israel. Two harlots came before him with one living son. Both had given birth to sons, and one of the infants had died during the night. Both claimed to be the mother of the living child. Solomon's judgment was to divide the living child in half, obviously killing it, and to give each woman one half. The true mother, moved by compassion, intervened. How did Solomon arrive at his strategy? Perhaps God simply revealed it to him in an instant. It is possible, however, that he practiced this quality called empathy. By looking at the situation through the eyes of the real mother, Solomon must have felt her deep maternal compassion. He knew the true mother would be especially solicitous of the infant's well-being and life. Through empathy, we could have arrived at a judgment similar to Solomon's.
A powerful key
Empathy is a most powerful key to communication and understanding other people and their feelings. Perhaps the most dramatic example of empathy in the Bible is found in Hebrews 2:17-18 — one of the most important reasons why Jesus Christ suffered many trials and finally martyrdom. "Wherefore in all things it behoved him to be made like unto his brethren, that he might be a merciful and faithful high priest in things pertaining to God, to make reconciliation for the sins of the people. For in that he himself hath suffered being tempted, he is able to succour them that are tempted." Jesus Christ understands each of us in our trials and human problems because He is literally able to see life, to experience pain and suffering, through our eyes. That is not to say He will condone your continuation in a sin or your defeat when you are able to overcome a trial. But He understands. He can sympathize. You can truly communicate with your Advocate.
A wiser approach
Now consider empathy in the preceding scenario of a teenage son pleading with his father for a car. The son was saying that "all the other fellas have one." He was telling his father that he wanted to be like his friends. Inclusion is a critical issue to a 17-year-old. And that is not to speak ill of 17-year-olds. They are living a period of life through which every adult had to live. It is an important formative time when an understanding father is irreplaceable. A wise father will not shout down his son. He will try to recall what it was like to be 17. He will try to see life through his son's eyes and come to appreciate his son's point of view. He might ask his son to empathize with him — the father. That is, coach his son into viewing life for a few fleeting moments through a parent's eyes. To consider the actual price of a car, insurance, license and basic maintenance. He might even ask his son to go out and research the facts. In short, to have his son see for himself. This father might express his personal love and affection for his son and his concern for his son's safety and well-being.
Taking time for empathy
By slowing down the argument a deeper communication can take place. Now it is true that empathy will not provide the needed money for another car. Nor will it, by itself, provide the safety and protection that every parent so desperately wants for his/her sons and daughters. But empathy will do this: It will cause each member of the family to better appreciate each other's desires and frustrations. They will come to care more deeply about each other, not just for self. How many marriages have become casualties of poor communication? Of those millions of divorces, how many could have been prevented if each mate would have taken time to see life — yes, experience life — through the eyes of the other? Through empathy, families can become teams, facing their problems together. Without empathy, those same problems are approached by competing factions, all fighting to accomplish individual ends.
Not a Simple matter
Empathy is not as simple as looking at another person's point of view. One must look at life for that passing moment through the eyes of that other person. That is, through the entire context of that person's life. Context includes age, geography and cultural background, values, ambitions, occupation and the other powerful forces that make up each individual. It is difficult for a 17-year-old to perceive the life, throughout the years, of his 45-year-old father. He can glimpse that life through reading, and most importantly, through many hours of listening to his parent's talk about the times and conditions through which they lived. Seemingly idle chatter among families can be vital background information by which each family member is better equipped to empathize, see life, through the other members eyes. A lack of true empathy has thwarted hundreds and thousands of diplomatic discussions down through the millenia. Nations seek peace at the conference table, but so often their academic interchanges disregard life as viewed by citizens of the other country. The cultural, religious, geographical and other major considerations are left out. The so-called "peace talks" turn into nothing more than bartering sessions with each side striving to promote his viewpoint. Empathy would have assuaged some of the animosities and hostilities. Understanding, empathy and appreciation for the other is a powerful force in relations between nations as well as families.
Avoid the extreme
Empathy, like any other good thing, can be taken to extremes. Remember, empathy is to view life as seen by another, for a moment, not abandon your views, feelings and judgments. The father we read about earlier is absolutely right in sticking to his better judgment, even though he might make concessions at other times. The financial well-being of the family and the physical welfare of his son may demand that he hold firm. But empathy could be of inestimable value in helping him and his son to appreciate each others dilemma. One thing is for sure, empathy puts more love in a family than open and ugly hostility. Empathy is the backbone of communication in a family! Fortunately for us, Jesus Christ never abandoned His mission. He went to every kind of sinner and admonished him to sin no more, as He empathized. Above all, He came to view life through the eyes of humans. And through His life and death, He has become the greatest empathizer of all time. That kind of empathy in each of us would help in all of our social relations — but especially within our families.