Empathy: A Virtue for Our Times

(By guest author Elizabeth Troyer-Miller.)  I have been sucked into the cultural and political divisions of today. Everything feels politicized. Even sneezing in public feels like something I need to hide as it may be controversial! All the normal practices to keep me grounded have been disrupted, church and Sunday school lack the community and connection, and I barely see anyone beyond co-workers and our mask-muffled conversations. I have been in desperate need of a shake-up.

In this crazy space, I stumbled upon a practice, grounded in the principles of nonviolent communication. I now have an empathy buddy. For those of you who are unfamiliar with this term, it was new to me, too. For me, it is an intentional relationship in which two people meet together to practice nonviolence communication. We take turns listening to each other and offer guesses about the feelings and needs expressed in our sharing. Check out this blog post from the Center for Compassionate Living.

My empathy buddy and I did not know each other; she was initially only a name and an email address. All we knew about the other person was that they shared a desire to work on skills for communicating with empathy. We used tools from the New York Center for Nonviolent Communication and formatted our discussions with guides such as The Empathy Call .

Over the last couple of months we have been meeting online weekly for 60-90 minutes. We take turns as speaker and listener, and we intentionally identify feelings and needs revealed by our conversations. We use statements like this: “I wonder if you feel ____because of your need for _____.” We end our sharing time by answering, “What is your request for yourself or for the listener?”

Through this process, I have felt a softening of my judgement of myself and of others.  1 Corinthians 4.5 is insightful here: “Therefore judge nothing before the appointed time; wait until the Lord comes. God will bring to light what is hidden in darkness and will expose the motives of the heart.”

I have been able to see in new ways how unmet needs lead to my feelings of unrest. I have been able to develop a new sense of self-awareness and kindness to myself and others. Rather than rushing to judge a person by their actions, I have been able to work on my own curiosity and wonder what else is going on. This process forces me to slow down.

The rippling impact of this new practice has surprised me. I am discovering a new level of vulnerability that I have applied to my relationship with Christ. No longer do I gloss over my emotions, but I can name my deep sadness, longing, disappointment and shame as they may appear.

As I bear witness to the real emotions of others, I can bear witness to my own self. I have the vocabulary to unmask my true self before Christ. This vulnerability is becoming comfortable to me, as we have a savior who ‘gets it.’ As Hebrews 4:15 offers, “We do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who in every respect has been tested as we are, yet without sin.”

Elizabeth Troyer-Miller, Wood River, Nebraska


Hear and watch a 30-minute video on Empathy (TV interview with Ted Lewis in 2018)

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