The popular culture has conditioned us to believe being human means learning to thrive, survive, accumulate and accomplish. It's the "get all you can, can all you get and sit on the lid" attitude that permeates the very air we breathe. Darwin was obsessed with the survival of the fittest. Jesus on the other hand was obsessed with the survival of the unfittest and the most vulnerable. Imagine how mentally jarring it must have been when the disciples heard Jesus say, "For anyone who keeps his life for himself shall lose it; and anyone who loses his life for me shall find it again." Matthew 16:25 Living Bible (TLB). The purpose for the incarnation was not merely to save us from our sin, but to save us from ourselves. Our instinct is to insulate and isolate to protect ourselves from potential harm or incrimination by association. This futilistic view results in living as if life is a sexually transmitted disease that we are born with rather than living as if we are an antidote that is to be released to the suffering.
Have you ever noticed when reading through the gospels Jesus preferred not to be called the "Son of God?" Rather he refers to himself as the "Son of Man." Why? Because Jesus was truly "The Human One", the archetype of humanity. Jesus was not just a miracle worker or purveyor of truth. The moniker, Son of Man made truth tangible; truth with a pulse. The miracle ministry of Jesus has been emphasized so much that we've missed the motive of mercy that precipitated the miracles. It may sound like an oversimplification of life given all it complexities, but I believe experiencing empathy is what we are all here to learn about what it means to be human. For me empathy has become my new curriculum. What I haven't felt I need to feel or I've never fully felt what the Rabbi felt. My definition of empathy is that it is the echo of someone else's pain. That is why God became flesh in Jesus and why He desires to live empathically through us.
The Greeks of the first century considered that empathy between humans and the gods was not possible. While, on occasion, the gods could come to the aid of human beings, the gods could not empathize with humans. The experience of being a god was so different from the experience of being a human that there was no possibility for either of them truly to understand the other. There was no possibility of empathy. The writer of Hebrews challenged this notion by saying, "We have a great high priest who has ascended into heaven, Jesus the Son of God, let us hold firmly to the faith we profess. For we do not have a high priest who is unable to empathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are—yet he did not sin." (Hebrews 4:14-15)
The deep compassion and empathy of Jesus is demonstrated again and again in the gospels as He witnessed the pain of humanity. The suffering He encountered in humans was not some thing he sympathetically perceived, but it became palpable to Him. Empathy is the ability to comprehend or enter into the experience of another, actually entering into another’s story. Empathy first involves simply listening, but it is a certain kind of listening. It is a kind of listening which is not defensive, critical, or suspicious. It is the opposite of the kind of listening that a jury does when listening to witnesses. Empathy means we're not just listening to another’s story but also participating in the other’s story, so that the listener not only hears and believes the facts of another’s experience, but actually feels the experience at some level. Our culture is one of talkers poised to trample others. We can't really hear anything if we are desperate to be heard. I believe that listening is the most generous of all acts and is a vanishing virtue. To have empathy for someone is not simply to believe what that person says, but to feel along with that person, to participate in that person’s experience. To take an empathetic stance towards another means that I am able to transcend myself and my own experience in order to enter into the experience of another. Those who have received such empathy from another will know that there is nothing more healing or more validating than this.
Why do we rarely experience empathy? Cynthia Bourgeault explains that we live in the myth of separation. "When we become aware of our identity using this egoic operating system, we experience ourselves as persons with distinct qualities and attributes. When we introduce ourselves, we usually begin by listing these characteristics: “I am a Pisces, a person who loves the ocean, an Episcopalian, a priest.” We identify ourselves by what makes us unique and special. Of course, that same list also makes other people separate from me; they are outside, and I’m inside. I experience myself as a distinct and fixed point of identity that “has” particular qualities and life experiences, and these things make me who I am.
But this sense of identity is a mirage, an illusion. There is no such self. There is no small self, no egoic being, no thing that’s separated from everything else, that has insides and outsides, that has experiences. All these impressions are simply a function of an operating system that has to divide the world up into bits and pieces in order to perceive it. Like the great wisdom teachers of all spiritual traditions, Jesus calls us beyond the illusion: “Hey, you can upgrade your operating system, and life is going to look a whole lot different when you do it.”
The binary operating system does have some real importance; it’s not a mistake. It enables us to perform basic cognitive tasks, but most people get stuck in it and rely on the egoic operating system to create a sense of identity. We walk through our lives perceiving, reacting to, and attempting to negotiate the world “out there.” It’s like being lost in a mirage. A system based in duality can’t possibly perceive oneness; it can’t create anything beyond itself—only more duality and more trouble. So the drama of the “separate self” goes on and on. "For none of us lives for ourselves alone, and none of us dies for ourselves alone." (Romans 14:7)
After the resurrection the disciples were disillusioned by feelings of abandonment thinking that the once close and intimate Jesus had left them. In the throes of their separation anxiety Jesus would appear to remind them He was still touchable and present. It is important that Luke's resurrection account has Jesus saying, "I am not a ghost! I have flesh and bones, as you can see"(Luke 24:49.) To Thomas, Jesus says, "Put your finger in my wounds!" ( John 20:27). In other words, I am human! I am resurrected and wounded at the same time.
It is natural for us to avoid pain and to seek pleasure. We instinctively seek for euphoric experiences rather than empathic ones. We would rather know Jesus in the "power of his resurrection than in the fellowship of His sufferings." But we cannot separate the two and know what it's really like to be human.