Tuesday, October 20, 2020

Sympathy vs. Empathy

Today's post was written by my current attending, Steven Berger, MD. He wrote it for the residents to discuss. Something to ponder. (Goodness I am blessed to work with such wonderful compassionate attendings!)

Sympathy vs Empathy

Sympathy means similar. It consists of being similar to another person. For example, at a funeral, you express sympathy and say things such as: "You must feel awful," "I’m sorry for your loss," or "I can’t imagine what it’s like for you to lose a child." In a funeral setting, you are saying that you are supportive of the person in his sadness and that you stand beside him in his time of need. A friend feels and expresses sympathy.

Empathy means same. It consists of having the same feelings as the other person and being one with the other person. As a psychiatrist, you are the authority of thoughts and feelings. With the patient, you identify the thoughts and feelings the patient is having. You bestow credibility and acceptability to the person’s thoughts and feeling. You endure those thoughts and feelings with the patient. You become one (same) with the patient in his thoughts and feelings. Instead of saying sympathetic things, you say empathic things, for example: "You feel awful," "The loss of your child is unfair," or "I know you feel unconsolably grieved. I will endure that inconsolable grief with you."

In being sympathetic, you act as a friend standing beside the person. In being empathic, you act as a holy spirit co-existing with the patient in his experiencing his thoughts and feelings. You experience the patient’s thoughts and feelings with him. You demonstrate to him that he is not alone, that you are with him, that you are bearing his burden with him, you are on his side to deal against his struggles with him. You are more than just a team with him. You are one with him.

As a psychiatrist, you side with the patient against whatever devils he is fighting. Instead of opposing the patient by saying, “Those voices you hear are not real”, you side with the patient by saying, “How are you and I (together) going to deal with those voices?”

Personally, one of my favorite pieces on the difference between empathy and sympathy is a short, two minute cartoon by Dr. Brene' Brown. I first saw it during medical school orientation at Wake Forest. The images from this short clip have stayed with me since. It's definitely worth watching (click HERE to view), but in a nutshell Dr. Brown proposes that empathy consists of four key steps:

1. Perspective Taking, or putting yourself in someone else's shoes.

2. Staying out of judgement and listening.

3. Recognizing emotion in another person that you have maybe felt before.

4. Communicating that you can recognize emotion.

A way to understand empathy is one that I carried with me throughout my active ordained ministry and still use today. When I express empathy towards another who is hurting (whether spiritually, physically, or mentally) I picture the person who is hurting in a deep dark well (kind of like the one in the Brown cartoon above). I picture myself empathetically entering the well with the person to sit with them in their pain, but I also always picture the rope that maintains a connection to the outside. I picture that rope tied securely outside the well, and I hold onto while in the well. If you as the helper/healer do not maintain the grounding lifeline, the way out of the well, you will both just be wallowing in the darkness.

Thank you Dr. Berger for the thought provoking writing!

Saturday, October 3, 2020

Is it time for the house church to re-emerge?


Is it time for the re-emergence of the house church in mainline denominations?

Despite not being able to worship in person during the COVID pandemic, I’ve really enjoyed attending different churches virtually—from the grandeur of Easter morning, morning prayer, and even a weekly Covid-19 memorial service at the Washington Cathedral (click here to visit), to the familiar faces at Sunday worship at my mom’s congregation, St. Peter’s Del Mar (click here to visit), to the memories sparked by Sunday services at my sponsoring parish, St. James Paso Robles (click here to visit)--all with out leaving my office.

I have loved this and applaud the creativity of these big and small worshipping communities to find new and innovative ways to proclaim God’s never ceasing love in a time when we need it so desperately. As my congregation in New Zealand used to say, “Good on ‘ya.”

As I’ve thought about where we are, and where we are going, I wonder if we might need to push ourselves even further outside of the mold of what we know. While these virtual experiences work, there will always be something missing from not being able to gather in person as a community. And after COVID is over (yes, that will happen one day) I worry about the financial state of congregations and their ability to continue to afford “church” the way we’ve always done it--aging buildings and full time, seminary trained clergy in a society with declining interest in mainline Christian denominations are all  concerns. My fear is that COVID has accelerated the unsustainable nature of our current model.  

I wonder if it is time to think about the house church again, and how the first models we have of the “ecclesia” might inform how we do church. The description of the house church appears multiple times in the bible (Corinthians 16:19, Philemon 1:2, Romans 16 to name a few). The practice in these house churches is best described in Acts 2:42-47, They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers (NRSV).

What if we were to go to a model, maybe even just during COVID, where congregational hubs supplied materials and creative ideas for gathering that could occur in people’s homes with proper social distancing. These could be like the “learning pods” that are springing up for educating children. We could offer “worship pods” or “spiritual growth pods” that focus on authentic and relevant biblical teaching that is applicable to these very difficult times we are living through. These pods could be a way to safely be together, break bread safely, and support one another. And we could pray...

House churches could allow us to reclaim some of the best of the early church in a new, evolved way.