The Strength of Empathy

To give some context for the title – my job requires all employees to take the StrengthsFinder quiz to determine your 5 top strengths (out of 34 total strengths). Empathy is in my top 5.   

Today was a weird day. I know it was 9/11, and so that made it a bit out of the norm from any other day, but that’s not what I’m talking about. I started the day at work, opening my email, calendars and checking Facebook. Obviously, there were a lot of 9/11 related posts. I started reading one post about a man, Tom Burnett, who was on the one airplane (United Airlines Flight 93) that did not reach its intended target, and instead was crashed into a field where it did not cause harm to anyone outside of the plane. I read the phone transcript between Tom Burnett and his wife – I read the part where he told her, “Don’t worry – we’re going to do something” – the last words he would ever say to his wife.

So this morning as work is just beginning, I’m already getting teary and emotional. I decided I could not read any more posts and got on to my emotionally-neutral work tasks. But all day I just couldn’t shake the feeling that I was having a hard time – the feeling weighed on me all day and I felt like I wanted to cry, but I hadn’t had an opportunity (I’m usually a private crier.)

I wondered what the deal was with me – why was I so emotional about something that happened 17 years ago? Why was I so upset about the deaths of people I never knew? All day I kept asking myself what was “wrong” with me – until I got home and talked to Dean about it. He told me there is nothing wrong with having empathy and compassion for people – there is nothing wrong with grieving for people you never knew, no matter how recent or old the tragedy is. Having compassion and empathy is a good thing!

There’s something else that has been weighing on me for the last week or so – the death of Botham Jean – another person that I never met or knew personally. I have been processing what happened to him and didn’t know how to express my thoughts and feelings on the situation. I feel a connection to him because he was a Harding graduate. I watched videos of him leading singing in chapel in the Benson auditorium, and if I had been just a few years younger, I probably would have crossed paths with him at Harding. I probably would have gotten to hear his beautiful singing voice live in chapel. It was hard to hear about a senseless death of a person in their own home. It was hard to think about how his mother must feel – having a son of my own, I hurt for her, although I know it’s nothing compared to the pain she must be going through. I felt pain and sadness, and at the same time felt joy and gratitude that my own son was alive and well.

My heart has also been hurting for people who have lost young children. Some of the people I know personally, and some are related to people I know, but my heart hurts for them the same. I don’t know what that is like – and I can only imagine the hurt and pain (not that I want to imagine it!) I feel helpless to do anything, because what can be done? A card seems so small for someone who has lost a child – but maybe it’s the small things that are the most important…

All that to say, that as I was leaving work at the end of the day, I knew I had hit an emotional-breaking point. I got in the car and immediately just started crying. Crying for the 9/11 deaths, for Botham Jean, for parents who have lost children before they got to meet them. I prayed to God for peace about all of it, but I also thanked him for the ability to have empathy and compassion for others – something that has not always been my strong-suit. I know God is hurting with those people too – he has compassion for all of us.

A week ago, Dean had the opportunity to come to one of my library staff meetings and give a presentation on trauma-informed care. You may have heard of this term, it’s kind of a buzzword these days – but if you haven’t, it’s basically a way of approaching and interacting with people that assumes that they have either gone through (or are currently going through) a traumatic experience. You create safe environments for people that don’t contribute to their pain, and you give a little extra grace to everyone you meet because you acknowledge that you don’t know everyone’s story. (This is my interpretation of trauma-informed care – Dean could give you a better definition.)

In light of so many tragic events going on in so many people’s lives, I don’t think there could be a better time to start thinking about how to implement trauma-informed care. How can I help make life a little easier for people dealing with extremely hard things? How can I show God’s love to those hurting? How can I fill people up instead of tearing them down? Today I was hurting for people that very obviously were dealing with trauma – death and loss of loved ones is certainly a traumatic experience. But I know there are also many people out there who are not so obviously hurting – people who say they’re doing “fine” when inside they are barely hanging on. How do I show extra love to people when I don’t know that they are hurting?

The lesson I’ve learned is: just assume that they are – and love everyone a little bit extra.


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