I have always understood empathy to being able to walk in someone else’s shoes. Then I read this definition from Brene Brown’s new book Atlas of the Heart, ”We need to dispel the myth that empathy is ‘walking in someone else’s shoes.’ Rather than walking our shoes, I need to learn how to listen to the story you tell about what it’s like in your shoes and believe you even when it doesn’t match my experiences” (pg 122).

Ugh. This quote hit me like a ton of bricks. I just sat there for several minutes processing it. The words “believe you” have been resonating through me ever since. As someone who has experienced violence, molestation and rape, being believed is not a guarantee.

Typically, someone who hears my story is sympathetic. They are sorry it happened and move on to a different topic or their story. When someone listens intently and expresses belief and understanding, a rare but palpable connection occurs.

19 I will betroth you to me forever;
    I will betroth you in[a] righteousness and justice,
    in[b] love and compassion. (Hosea 2:19 NIV).

When God swept in, He made it very clear that my pain was His pain. It was clear that I was deeply known. The love and compassion were palpable. God models empathy through love and compassion, through grace and forgiveness.

Experiencing God’s compassion, has expanded my heart, my ability to show empathy, and my willingness to deeply know others. It was a side effect I wasn’t expecting. I can still fall short. I still fall into sympathy. I let my busyness become an excuse not to engage with stories of others. This quote from the book has reminded me of the power of empathy, the power of being believed and the power of God in the midst of our pain.

Empathy is so much more than walking in someone else’s shoes. It is deep connection. It allowing the other to be seen and known. It’s hard work, and I still have a lot of work to do. (Warning: this book may produce more posts :0).

How are you with empathy? Are you able to listen and believe? Have you experienced that kind of connection? Share your experience here and breathe life and bring hope to others.

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