A Radical Experiment In Empathy
"While nothing is easier than to denounce the evildoer, nothing is more difficult than to understand him." — Fyodor Dostoevsky
The journey continues for our group as we delve into how we establish trust with others and build meaningful relationships with our families, friends, strangers, and enemies. The fact that students are staying in the homes of strangers we call “host families” and living apart from their family and friends back home makes this discussion of understanding and loving others quite relevant. As conflicts arise and discomfort and frustrating habits begin to erode the pleasantries that once protected us, the lines of friends, family, strangers, and enemies are becoming blurry and our feelings of safety and belonging are beginning to slip from our grip. While it is still early for these sentiments to take root, it is important to discuss these feelings openly and develop a common language to help light the way forward to more trusting and loving relationships.
Helping us navigate these oftentimes turbulent waters is a good friend of ours and the co-founder of Taproot, Dr. Lindy Backues. On Friday we took a long look at the elements that help us build trust with others; whether it be on teams, with our families and friends, a cohort of gappers, or Philadelphian host families. We learned that while trust forms the foundation of healthy relationship and effective teams — a process that uses relational trust to stretch ourselves outside our comfort zones, into productive conflict, and towards success and effective cooperation — we seldom realize all the elements that make up the building blocks of relational trust; of community building. Pseudo-community is where we tend to start; a place where pleasantries, polite conversations, and surface level issues are discussed openly, and where we may feel comfortable but not necessarily belonging. After we tire of upholding the nice personas we carry in-front of us, and feel increasingly burdened by the small (or big) annoyances around us (both personal and environmental), we decline into what eventually becomes chaos - a phase in which our goal is to change, control, convert, and “make right” that which is awry around us. Feelings are hurt, relationships are on the line, and all hope seems at risk of being lost in this phase, and our only way through is to lay down our weapons, risk attack, and humbly embrace the possibility that we may be the ones needing to change. This is vulnerability, it comes as a grace from God, and it it the substance of God’s love as we see displayed on the cross. It is from these ashes of true vulnerability that trust, true belonging, and community arise, and it is here where God is constantly calling us.
From here, we stepped further into the implications of true vulnerability with a profound and practical look at empathy. Led through a startling and emotional journey by sociologist Sam Richards (http://www.ted.com/talks/sam_richards_a_radical_experiment_in_empathy#), we practiced as a group what it means to put ourselves in the shoes of another; even someone whom we may consider our sworn enemy. This “radical experiment” shook us from our normal ways of thinking and gently ushered us towards the perspective of a typical Afghanistan civilian or even a “freedom fighter” — someone we might normally call a “terrorist.” While there was nothing easy about stretching ourselves to see the world from the perspective of another — even the more extreme others — our group focused on the role fear, hate, and love seem to play in our society. So often we seem to fear losing the things we love, and to such a degree that we justify sustained hatred towards alleged threats; a mentality that seems all too common in the church and yet starkly contradictory to the Gospel's message. This tension is where we left off, and is a tension we hope will find both resolution and depth as the semester continues.
Other than these two small clips from our class time, it’s worth mentioning here about the semester long class project that students have begun working on. As you know, students are living with local host families in South Philadelphia, and as apart of their time here, we’ve asked them to begin conducting interviews with their host families to learn more about the stories that surround their homes and make up their lives. Led by a good friend and oral history expert, Mark Lyons, the students will be gathering interview recordings of specific stories, editing them together with music overlays, and co-producing a final product with their host families. While this often proves to be a challenging task in its initial phases, we have already heard some amazing stories shared by students about escaping violence overseas, making a new life here in Philly, and holding true to faith despite countless tribulations. Please be praying for the students as they continue to delve into the stories that surround them, that they would be curious and respectful, thoughtful and vulnerable with their host families. These are real stories, real relationships, and real risks that must be taken, and — as we’ve mentioned above — trust plays a key role in providing a safe environment for stories to be shared and relationships to be built. While we do everything we know how to equip students and families for a healthy and memorable experience, it is by God’s grace that conversations impact us and stories inspire us to empathize and love radically. Pray that these days would be filled with honesty, thoughtfulness, and a steady movement towards vulnerability as both the students and the home stay families inch towards deeper and deeper community.
"Think of yourselves the way Christ Jesus thought of himself. He had equal status with God but didn’t think so much of himself that he had to cling to the advantages of that status no matter what. Not at all. When the time came, he set aside the privileges of deity and took on the status of a slave, became human! Having become human, he stayed human. It was an incredibly humbling process. He didn’t claim special privileges. Instead, he lived a selfless, obedient life and then died a selfless, obedient death—and the worst kind of death at that—a crucifixion.
Because of that obedience, God lifted him high and honored him far beyond anyone or anything, ever…”
— Philippians 2: 5-9 (The Message)