Twenty years ago, Lisa sat in a hospital ward. She had lost track of the number of times she had been admitted to the hospital in an effort to get her eating disorder under control.
The days all seemed to run together—she’d get up and be weighed and eat breakfast. Then she’d sit in the hallway until lunch. Then, she’d have art and a visit with the doctors. Then, she’d sit in the hallway until dinner. All of these were under supervision. There was never a time Lisa could be unsupervised. Finally, it would be bedtime.
Once a week, though, something amazing would happen. Lisa would get a visit from a chaplain named Susanna. Susanna would sit with her, play games with her, and most importantly, listen to her as she talked about her frustrations with herself, with the hospital, with God. For those few hours each week, Lisa was able to express herself without another’s judgment or commentary.
Brene Brown once said, “Empathy is simply listening, holding space, withholding judgment, emotionally connecting, and communicating that incredibly healing message of you’re not alone.”
All of us can do that to varying degrees, and all of us enter into varying degrees of empathy in another person’s life. But regardless of how deeply we can go into another’s pain, the results are remarkable. Lisa met with Susanna no more than 10 times total. But the memories of those visits have stayed with her all these years later.
All of us can be Susanna. And many of you already are. This is one level of empathy.
But there is the next level as well—the one that begs us to die to our own opinions and narratives daily due to the proximity of what we know of a person.
There were two people during those times in the hospital who impacted Lisa even more than Susanna. And these were Lisa’s parents. Nearly every day they would travel an hour and a half to visit her. They would sit with her, play games with her, bring her books to read.
This level of empathy is nearly impossible to understand—it’s the one where even in spite of all the bad, you are never alone. Even when you are hurting, you offer yourself to others.