When my brother John was a baby, and I was three, Mom decided she wanted to have a professional portrait taken of the two of us. We didn’t have a photography studio in the little town where we lived, but a traveling photographer had come to town that summer. So Mom took us to the back room of Samuelson’s Grocery where the photographer had set up shop between boxes of produce and milk crates.
Mom had pulled back my hair into two neat pigtails, and secured my bangs with big yellow barrettes. I wore a sunny blouse with ruffles, and a plaid jumper that made me feel pretty.
Little John wore a one-piece romper with ducks on the front. He also wore the expression of a child who wanted to be anywhere else but a makeshift photo studio. Mom said John cried in the back of that grocery store that day. A lot.
Eventually, the photographer secured a suitable shot. Mom loved it enough that she displayed it in a huge oval frame.
All these years later, I have the photograph hanging in our guest bedroom. Every time I see it, I remember the story behind the photo – especially the part about the crying. Mom said John wasn’t the only one who cried. I did too. She said she’s certain that the reason I was crying is because my brother was.
If you look at the photograph close enough, you can see John’s glossy eyes. A single, escaped tear had begun its tumble down one round cheek. And this is no glamour shot here, so you can see a shiny line of snot under my nostril.
(I guess they didn’t photoshop out the truth back then. The photo was printed as is, snot and all.)
Looking back, I am struck by the way I held my brother close, almost in a protective embrace. I am struck by the way that, as a child, I had the capacity for empathy.
To me, the photo is a literal representation of what it means to “weep with those who weep” (Romans 12:15).
I was too little to offer advice to my brother on how to get through a photo shoot when he was uncomfortable or perhaps frightened by the dude with the big camera. I didn’t have the vocabulary to soothe his fear with words. All I knew to do was pull him closer to me, cry with him, and stay by his side until it was over.
And that’s just what I did.
I think this is what it means to have empathy and compassion for others. We get it at age three. But it fades with years. Maybe it’s because of our time-pressed lives, our own discomfort with others’ pain, our underestimation of other people’s distress, or our self-expectations about having the right words to fix things that can’t be quickly fixed.
I’m not sure why, but we seem to be undergoing an empathy shortage in our culture.
Perhaps you’ve felt it too. You’re dealing with pain and fear, but you — right now — are sitting alone with it. You are crying out, but no one hears. You are at the end of your rope, but everyone else is dealing with their own stuff too these days.
Or maybe (like Job in the Old Testament) you have been blamed or criticized by friends, instead of receiving the empathetic support you needed in this moment. You may recall that Job’s friends lacked relational competency when he was in a crisis. Their behavior was so disturbing to Job, that he responded to them, “what miserable comforters you are” (Job 16:2).
Job didn’t need his friends’ condemnation and misguided advice. He really just needed them to be present and available. He said to them, “If it were me, I would encourage you” (Job 16:5).
The consummate example of empathy, of course, is Jesus. We see His empathy when He cried at the tomb of Lazarus. We see it again when He moved through villages, healing people because “he had compassion on them” (Matthew 9:36). Even from the cross, Jesus showed empathy and compassion for His mom, having the presence of mind to ask the disciple John to care for her.
Empathy is a powerful force that says, “I care about you.” “You’re not alone.” “I am here.” “I am listening.”
Today, may we take the time we need to put ourselves in the shoes of those who are hurting. May we remember that humans tend to underestimate the intensity of other people’s emotional pain. And, as the Apostle Paul exhorts us, may we weep with those who weep.
Little Jennifer seemed to know it instinctively, and I think we can learn a lot from a child. More than anything else, we need to just sit by our brothers and sisters, pull them close, and cry with them.
And I also believe we should stop photoshopping the snot out of everything.
The (in)courage podcast is taking a brief hiatus from new episodes this week as we do some maintenance and updating behind the scenes! We’ll return to new daily episodes next week, March 13th. In the meantime, we hope you’ll enjoy five episodes from our podcast archives!
Today’s replay is of a bonus episode conversation from November 2022, titled Come Sit With Me, with Becky Keife, Rachel Marie Kang, & Anna E. Rendell. Listen below or wherever you stream podcasts.Leave a Comment