Archive for February 2017

On Empathy

February 8, 2017

Empathy, any chaplain will tell you, is one of the greatest tools of providing spiritual care. And it is a tricky tool to master. The Merriam-Webster dictionary has two definitions for empathy, but the one I am looking at reads, “The action of understanding, being aware of, being sensitive to, and vicariously experiencing the feelings, thoughts, and experience of another of either the past or present without having the feelings, thoughts, and experience fully communicated in an objectively explicit manner.” In other words, empathy is the attempt to walk a mile in another’s shoes.

Perhaps you know this, but part of my job is teaching empathy. With my position at Prayers Of the People, I go to churches and train people who want to be Lay Ministers and Spiritual Care Volunteers in Houston-area hospitals. These training sessions are two-fold, which you can read about on our website. But to save you that trip, let me explain that the first training is a 9-hour didactic session held in the church. During this first session, my boss and I do our best to go over the basic rules of a spiritual care visit as well as some of the tips. Empathy is the most difficult thing to understand without experience.

Just a couple of weeks ago, we trained thirty new volunteers to start this ministry. As we went through our manual, I covered the topic of empathy vs. sympathy. In our manual, there is a picture of a girl who is covered in mud, with a an upset expression on her face holding a puppy, also covered in mud. When we approach this picture, the trainees are asked, “What do you want to do with this girl?”

Over time, my boss – the President and Executive Director of POP – and her predecessors have found the most natural answer to be, “Clean her off!” in some form or another. And we acknowledge it and say, “Of course. She is very dirty. It does look like she could need a bath. But what if she does not want a bath? What if she is upset because her mother just told her to come inside and clean off and she is not ready to do so?”

This changes the conversation every time. Because if the girl does not want to get clean, then why should we want her to be clean? What about her feelings and desires? What about her intentions for the rest of the day? Why should they be ignored?

And this is a basic way to explain empathy. Empathy starts with listening to the other person in the conversation. What do they want? What does that person need? What are they feeling in this moment? How can we validate those feelings without dictating what we think they need?

When I did my unite of Clinical Pastoral Education (CPE) – a training course for chaplaincy in hospitals – here in Houston, I had a hard time grasping what empathy meant. For whatever reason, I needed a definition, but could not come up with it. It was not until the end of that 11-week unit that I grasped what empathy meant. For me, it was finding a situation in which I could relate to the other person, without verbalizing it. If the patient was experiencing incredible pain, I tried to remember a time I felt incredible pain. If the patient was missing their animal, I thought about how much I wanted to be on the couch with my cat snuggling on me. If the person was experiencing the loss of a loved one, I remembered when someone dear to me died. The key is to never verbalize the remembered experience, but simply to sit in those emotions with the person in the room. I just remembered how complicated my emotions were at those times and let them sit in theirs.

Perhaps the best example of empathy in the Bible comes from the Gospel of John, chapter 11, verse 8: “Jesus began to weep,” (NRSV).

Jesus arrives after Lazarus’s death. And he is approached by Mary and the people who had come with her weeping, causing him to weep. To be clear, Lazarus was Jesus’ friend, but it was not Lazarus’s death that caused Christ to weep. It was the weeping of others. He related to the crowds around him, causing him to be in their shoes. Jesus wept because he felt the pain of others.

Empathy helps a chaplain sit with people in all sorts of incredible positions. It allows the chaplain to walk with the person through the fog of it all – without guiding. Empathy helps to understand what the person really needs and how they could get to where they are going. Empathy helps chaplains care for the other person the way Christ cared for those he loved. Empathy is one of the greatest bridges for all human interaction.

Primary Them

February 1, 2017

Today, the Senate voted on whether or not to confirm Rex Tillerson as Secretary of State. Senator Mark Warner (D – VA), Senator Heidi Heitkamp (D – ND), Senator Joe Manchin, III (D – WV), and Senator Angus King (I – ME) all voted in favor of Rex Tillerson as Secretary of State. This post is why I want them all to be “primaried,” with no exceptions. Get them out of the Senate.

From 2006 – 2008, I served as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Ukraine. For the first three months, I trained in the town of Rokytne (Rok – it – ney), just outside of Kyiv (Ukrainian spelling here, folks). It was a wonderful place. But my heart lies in the town of Vysokopillya (Vee – so – ko – pill -yah) in the Khersonska Oblast’. Vysokopillya is where I spent the majority of my two years serving as a Youth Development Volunteer. When people as what a YD Volunteer does, I joke and say I was an over-glorified teacher. But it was more than that. After school, I ran a basketball club at my assigned school. I helped facilitate (at least for a time before the town government lost interest, which made me lose interest) a peer-led HIV/AIDS education group. I helped a little bit with the camping group, but was mostly along there to hang out with my Ukrainian friends who were the real facilitators.

But I can tell you what I did best of all while I was there: I made friends. If you know me, this should come as no surprise. But that is a rare feat for Peace Corps Volunteers, particularly when there is a language barrier. However, I was fortunate enough to find a group of people my age in my town who took me in as one of their own. Dennis, Yana, Sasha, Tanya, Ruslan, and many others. We bonded quickly and hung out a lot.

Along with my friends, there is my host family. Vova, Ira, Sasha, and Misha. My host family quickly became my second family. They sheltered me for the first three months I was in Vysokopillya and were always ready to support me whenever I needed it. When my mom, stepdad, and two sisters came over to visit, my host family embraced them and loved the hell out of them. It was a magical evening for me, having these families together. The homemade vodka (samohon) from Vova helped, of course.

With these people, I laughed, I cried, I hiked in then-Ukrainian-owned Crimea, I rode on trains, and I made friends and family for lives.

And the vote for Rex Tillerson put the lives of all of these people in immediate danger. Right now, as we talk, Russian-backed forces are shelling the Ukrainian town of Adviidka. This town is in the Donyetsk Oblast’, in the Eastern area of Ukraine. And, if you look at a map, between Vysokopillya and Adviidka, you might think, “Hey, that’s far!” Until you remembered that Ukraine is only about the size of Texas. And the distance between Avdiivka and Vysokopillya is comparable to that between Houston and Dallas. And then, if you take into account that the Khersonska Oblast’ region is immediately north of Crimea, you find it is directly in the line of an all-out Russian invasion.

It’s no secret that Putin wants Ukraine. Likewise, it’s no secret that Tillerson is a friend of Putin. And, Tillerson has said he opposes the sanctions that have been put on Russia in the past few years. For my friends and adopted family in Ukraine, this makes for a very dangerous set of circumstances.

And, I said it: none of these things were secret. Yet Warner, Heitkamp, Manchin, and King voted in favor of Tillerson. Now, I don’t pretend to think they have the same vested interest in Ukraine as I do. But, should they not have a vested interest in national and international security? Ukraine is the one of the last significant borders between Russia and Europe. If Ukraine falls, Russia has a significant launching point into the rest of the former Soviet states in the region. Belarus is already controlled by the dictator and Putin-puppet Lukashenko (though those relations might be cooling). And if we give Ukraine to Russia, which loosening of sanctions very well might do, Russia will have direct access to NATO members Bulgaria, Romania, and Poland. Significant parts of Europe will be primed to fall. Combine that with this administration’s disdain of NATO, and we have some serious concerns for national and international security.

So primary them. Get significant competitors in. We should not and cannot have Senators who would look at the facts of a Tillerson-as-Secretary of State and say, “I’ll give that a ‘Yes’ vote.” At best, Tillerson is a businessman who has little understanding of international affairs. He has spent a significant amount of his career bending and twisting the law to get his way. At worst, Secretary of State will be the fall of Europe as we know it. Whichever happens, it should be Warner, Heitkamp, Manchin, and King who take the blame.