She’s a social scientist that studies shame, an author adamant about authenticity, and a TED-talker who values vulnerability. All of that and she’s a Believer, calling faith the “organizing principle of her life.”
Dr. Brene Brown is one of my heroes because her words changed my heart. Brene Brown is a research professor at the University of Houston’s Graduate College of Social Work. She has been studying vulnerability, courage, authenticity, and shame for over a decade. If she speaks, I want to listen because I know her wisdom is going to make me a better Believer. When I read one of her books, you bet I’ll be dog-earing most of the pages.
Brene Brown grew up in the church but as she got deeper into the “scholarly world” she strayed from the roots of her faith. Later, in time of crisis, she returned to the church were she says that she found Jesus to be “love with skin on” and a faith that she wasn’t expecting.
“I thought faith would say, I’ll take away the pain and discomfort. But what it ended up saying is that I’ll sit with you in it” she said.
A few years ago, I watched a short video, a cartoon illustrating Brene Brown’s teaching on empathy. I was at a study at my church, in a room of about 200 people, about 50% of us white and 50% of us black. We were all there with a shared desire to break-down divisions and ultimately, to connect. We were a group of folks who bravely agreed that we wanted to have hard conversations about racial reconciliation, because we hope to be undivided. What I didn’t expect was that “trying to make things better” or to “fix it” was not the right place to start. That’s where Brene Brown’s perspective came in.
(If you can, pop over for 3 minutes and give it a watch!)
As Dr. Brown says “Empathy is feeling with people.” It’s the place to start. “Empathy doesn’t require that we have the exact same experiences as the person sharing their story with us… Empathy is connecting with the emotion that someone is experiencing, not the event or the circumstance.”
Before seeing the cartoon, I was certainly a silver linings seeker, and proud to show that I saw them. I had adopted the badge “warrior for optimism” thinking that if I was going to battle against the pain and pessimism of the world around me, I was going to HAVE to always see the good in everything ALL THE TIME. I was much better at finding and pointing to the light than connecting to someone in the dark first. (And I’m still working on it.)
Sometimes, as a church, I think we fumble in the darkness. We thumb through our Bible, frantically seeking a passage to ease the pain because we want a “fix-it.” We disperse one another’s “prayer requests” without noticing that the chain has turned to a gossip circle. We quickly respond with overused words of sympathy, instead of taking the time to sit in someone else’s pit. We turn on worship tunes to drown out the blues in our own hearts. Listen, I’m not saying that any of that is wrong, or unhelpful. It’s all good! The Bible, prayer, sympathy, worship, it’s all life-giving and vitally important stuff! But maybe we can do better? Maybe we can allow God to use another, really effective tool.
Yesterday, Kate shared about Marilyn Laszlo spreading the Gospel to outsiders in Papua New Guinea. Did you notice what Marilyn did first? She learned their language.
There is a universal language to the human condition; it is pain. Pain is connective tissue that can be used for His Glory.
Is your pain known? Or is it silenced, medicated, numbed-out or hidden?
Has someone sat with you in the pit? Or have you not even called out so that someone knows you’re there?
Do you let others see your weakness? Do you show your wounds so all can see what you’ve overcome?
All of those questions, they can be answered with the person of Christ. Jesus knows our weaknesses, sees our pain, and sits in the pits with us. He has the wounds of an overcomer Himself. And since, as Believers we are now His hands and feet, we ought to be looking to leap into the dark pits of others, using empathy to love them well.
“To the weak I became weak in order to gain the weak. I have become all things to all people, so that by all means I may save some.” 1 Corinthians 9:22
When our daughter died, my husband called to share the news with someone. The response on the other end, “It’s for the best” did not connect to his present emotion of grief. Culturally, it seems there are many good-intentioned, but unhelpful responses to pain, grief and fresh wounds. In the wake of losing a baby, the only salve for my soul was Jesus; seeing Jesus in the love of people around me. I became keenly aware of the distinction between sympathy and empathy that Brene Brown makes reference to in the above clip. “Empathy builds connections while sympathy creates divisions,” she suggests.
As a grieving mother, I heard a lot of people saying to me “I cannot even imagine.” In my heart, I felt my own response of “Nope. You can’t.” (Because without experiencing child loss, it really is a hard one to imagine.) And some people, full of grace, really tried to imagine and their empathy showed in the welling of their tears, their loss for words, their sitting alongside, their remembering… And the most potent empathy of all came from an informal support group, or getting connected to people who could empathize (because tragically, they intimately know the feeling too.) I can’t imagine having survived the pounding waves of grief, without being relationally connected to two other women who shared similar stories.
So friends, if you’ve crawled out of a pit in the past, your work is not done. Make yourselves weak again. Leap into another’s pit, someone needs you down there to carry the light of Jesus into their dark place.
And if your Hope is dim and you’re in a pit of your own, call out for more Jesus.