I’ve covered some unfamiliar ground over the years, places that have made me grapple with my humanness in relation to others. Places my life experiences, college degrees or Wednesday night Bible studies hadn’t prepared me for … ground, despite my unsure footing, that would speak loudly and help me learn if I was willing to open myself to it.
One such life-altering moment will be forever painted in my mind—six white-sand tombstones etched in Arabic, and the sight of sandaled, dusty feet. For many, the men buried there were considered enemies of God and terrorists, simply due to their skin tone and homeland. They were killed while in combat with their neighbors. For me, I was unsure about what had transpired. What personal factors inflamed their fight? Why had they been targeted and killed, and who held the answers about whether their deaths were justified?
I did know one thing: their lives mattered a great deal to the people surrounding me. Standing there, the saturating heat of the Middle East making it hard to breath, I listened as family members told me of their loss and ongoing pain. The men who laid slain in the ground had names. They were brothers. They were sons. They were fathers. They were friends. How was I—a Christian, an American, a young woman, a human—to respond?
Biases, cultural unknowns, and identities (whether my own or those I thought may be perceived of me) began to tumble around like heavy rocks in my mind. Unsure, and desperate to let the noise inside me settle down, I found myself staring at the ground. The hot dust beneath my feet, stirred by the desert wind, began to stick to the skin exposed through my sandals. Nervous to make eye contact, to be asked my response, my entire body held the tension surrounding me. As my nerves fidgeted inside my skin, I kept my head bent downward, busying myself with discovering the imprint my shoes made in the dirt and freeing the tiny rocks I unearthed in the process. While I found relief observing the familiar sight of dirt and rocks, I decided I could widen my gaze just a little. Shifting my view to the ground those next to me stood on, I noticed something through the dust … my feet and their feet, our feet, looked much the same. And then I remembered, through dust and the breath of God we were all created (Genesis 2:7).
We’re on unfamiliar ground as a nation these days. The largest mass shooting in our nation’s history just occurred in Las Vegas, devastating hundreds of families and individuals. Hurricane storms have leveled the entire island of Puerto Rico and displaced thousands across Texas and Florida. Other debates—abortion, LGBTQ, refugees, racism, feminism, gun control and health care—continue to fester around us. For many, these issues are far more personal than a headline, political poll or Facebook status. There are people right around us who live daily in the reality of these circumstances, who wonder how to place another foot forward, who are unsure if the Church will listen and love, and who have a story to share that might just open our eyes.
Yes, the enormity and frequency of these unfamiliar places can leave us staring at the ground, desperate to numb the chaos and escape the pressure of engaging the uncertainty. But—and may God Himself teach us how—when we find our gaze cast downward with discomfort and misunderstanding, when we cannot relate and want to run, let’s take a minute and look at the feet around us. What do the feet around you look like?
Perhaps you’ve heard the adage that goes something like, “Before casting judgement, walk a mile in another person’s shoes.” In other words, before turning away from the unfamiliar, why not turn toward it and try the story on as if it were your own. I believe the concept to live and learn from here is empathy. You may have never personally experienced a mass shooting or the aftermath of recovering from it, but you can do your best to place yourself in the shoes of someone who has. We all can—by listening and learning, by acknowledging the shared experience it is to be human.
Have you ever lost someone? Have you ever been scared? Have you ever questioned God’s sovereignty? Or ever asked, if God was real, why would He let something like this happen? Have you ever felt so overwhelmed that you wanted the world to freeze for just one minute so you could catch your breath? Have you ever been so angry that you wished you could pound on God’s chest? Have you ever felt so numb that you couldn’t speak? Empathy is simply imagining that the circumstances we’re hearing about from the person next to us were our own, so we can see what they see, hear what they hear, feel what they feel. Empathy builds a bridge that connects us to someone else’s reality, allowing their experience not only to be heard, but shared.
Empathy can cross barriers that exist between people, races, conflict and opposing sides. Empirical research has even proven it. According to the article “What is Empathy?” from the Greater Good Science Center at UC Berkeley, practicing empathy can reduce prejudice and racism, deepen intimacy in relationship, decrease bullying and aggression, promote heroic acts, challenge inequality, and more.
Above all these considerations, is God incarnate, Jesus Christ. He illustrated empathy in its purest form. In a demonstration of the great love of God, Jesus came to live and dwell with us, to see what our earthly home—in all its pain, toil, sickness and suffering—was really like. In Isaiah 53:3–5, we see just what depths Jesus went through on our behalf. He was despised and rejected, “a man of suffering and familiar with pain.” He “took up our pain and bore our suffering.” In these verses and throughout the gospels, we don’t see Jesus modeling the distance or numbness we often default to. We do, however, see Him eager to love the adulterer, to touch the leper, to shoulder unbearable circumstances and to befriend the downcast. People of God, people of the Kingdom, we must get better at practicing empathy.
So, when we find ourselves in the unfamiliar ground of those near and far, doing our best to try on the shoes and story as our own, remember that Jesus shares the ground with us. In fact, He’s right there with you.
May His presence and example give us the courage to find out where the bridge of empathy might lead, and the humility to be taught by the real, human, experiences around us. We have more in common than we know. What will you learn from blowing winds and dust covered feet?
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