Have you ever felt like you have been hit by a bus and run over, only to have all your friends wave to you from the bus while calling out “You’re fine! Get up! This is all for the best, you know!”
That’s how I felt when my husband and I were mercilessly dismissed from our positions with a church in Nebraska. Our friends knew that my husband had been struggling for about a year with depression and bipolar disorder. They knew how working with the young people was incredibly important to him. They knew his heart was not necessarily being displayed as his illness and medications shifted and pulled on his personality. They knew.
All it took was a new, young, very inexperienced pastor to come on staff and spread around a few spiritual clichés – like “what comes out of a man’s mouth comes from his heart” and other doubts about mental illness, along with broad generalizations about God’s will and what might be best for my family… and suddenly we were out. And not just out, but out in twenty-four hours with barely a chance to say good-bye to the young people who were like our own children.
The circumstances that still haunt me, however, are not the actual dismissal. No, what affected me even more was what I never saw coming. Friend after friend would call and want to get together for lunch or coffee and they would say “We don’t have to talk about what happened. I just want you to know I care.” Which sounds great – but imagine NOT talking about how your right arm was just ripped off and you’re bleeding all over the place. That’s how it felt. So, not talking about it just wasn’t really an option for me. However – talking about it turned out to be even worse. I would (I thought – understandably so) speak quite angrily about what had happened to us and one after one my “friends” all said basically the same thing to me: “We don’t think you did anything wrong and we’re sorry you were hurt, but we know the elders have the best interest of the church at heart and we just have to trust them. They prayed about this decision and you just need to remember that God will work it out in his time.” I haven’t spoken to most of them since.
It’s been two and a half years since then, and it still bothers me when I hear phrases of “victim-blaming”. Adding shame and guilt on top of someone’s pain is never helpful. In fact, when you stand up for the institution that abused someone, it’s like you are on a bus that hits someone and all you offer is some advice about getting up and moving on as you shout out from the window of the bus.
But why do we do it? Why did almost ALL of my friends do this? What happened to empathy? Obviously, I can’t say for certain, but I do have some theories.
~ We want so badly to trust the institutions and the people that lead them in our lives that we will abandon all logic and turn out back on real relationships to maintain that trust.
~ We prefer to think that bad doesn’t happen randomly. In fact, a lot of us NEED to believe this is true. The phrase “there but for the grace of God go I” is rarely uttered anymore. We have insulated ourselves in our little happily-ever-after world. Accepting that real pain can come into someone’s life that did not deserve it – well that’s just not acceptable. So we hide behind phrases that either blame the person or make light of the pain – or both.
~ We think we are always supposed to be optimistic. My Gramma was the most optimistic person that ever lived. Seriously. She believed in seeing the bright side in everything, and if there wasn’t a bright said, well, she just wouldn’t talk about it. Telling someone who is in pain that there is no reason to feel like they are in pain isn’t terribly helpful. Living life as a perpetual victim is certainly not healthy, but refusing to believe that someone has any reason to see themselves as a victim will not help them move on. It could even cause them to dig in their heels to prove just how badly they were treated.
~ Some people really ARE victims. Being generally unhappy with your life, however, does not make you a victim. I think a lot of people are very unhappy with their safe existence. So unhappy, in fact, that they have no ability to have empathy for someone who is actually suffering. I have heard people make comments like “We all have issues in our lives. Some of us have older parents, some have teenagers with problems, some have financial issues – no one has a perfect life.” Thinking that your teenager staying out past curfew is the same as a young mother dying of cancer is ridiculously self-centered. Yes, we all have problems. NO, they are not all equal or the same.
~ The last theory I have for why people have so little empathy is probably the most accurate and sad. We just don’t care about each other. We want “relationships” with other people and “community” but we don’t actually want to put someone else’s needs above our own. That would just be crazy! So it’s really a lack of real love that I believe is the issue. Love – the kind Jesus taught about – the kind that leads you to say “There is nothing you could ever do to make me love you less.” There’s very little of it out there.
Somehow – we have become convinced that empathy is the same thing as sympathy – and sympathy is something that you have to be very careful handing out. People can get addicted. But here’s something to keep in mind:
Sympathy focuses on awareness; (I understand their pain)
Empathy focuses on experience; (walk in their shoes)
Compassion focuses on action. (I need to help)
I’m not sure how or when it happened, but somehow a lot of the American church seems to have decided it’s more important to have “tough love” to help people be more independent than to have sympathy, empathy & compassion. I just don’t see how that connects with the teachings of Jesus. In fact, it’s just about the opposite of what he taught.