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Our last hour in Australia was spent attending Mass at the oldest center for Catholic worship in Australia, St. Brigid’s, which happened to be across the street from our hotel. We are regular Sunday church goers at home and have always tried to attend services when we travel. The timing of our early afternoon flight was perfect. Wake, pack. Eat breakfast. Go to church. Head to the airport!
Originally built as a schoolhouse in 1835, the school doubled as a chapel for Mass on Sundays. Breathing in the history I thought of all the amazing revelations children and adults must have had in these 4 walls over the last nearly 200 years. This really touches my heart as a homeschool mom. Most kids started out being educated at home and then in one room school houses just like this one. My Spirit felt really at home here.
The pastor’s message included a story that is the topic for this post. He said, “When you see a beautiful church with a lot of stained glass windows on a bright sunny day, from the outside there’s nothing remarkable about it. But, when you step inside, you see the brilliance of the light and color because the light is shining from the outside in. You can’t appreciate it from the outside, you have to go inside to understand it.”
Immediately I thought how true this concept is in much of life. To really understand something you need to look at it from a different perspective. This is empathy, one of the most highly prized character traits in my eyes.
Sympathy, feeling sorry for someone or something, is about putting yourself into their shoes. We might ask, “How would I feel if that were happening to me?” And we are pretty happy with ourselves for even thinking it. I’m not knocking sympathy. There’s a lot of good will rooted in compassion that is underpinned by sympathy.
Empathy is a bit different. It requires more of us. In order to be empathic we need to endeavor to see from another’s point of view. There is no self in empathy. Empathy seeks to understand a person and their opinions and feelings and values and decisions based on their circumstances and culture, not our own.
Travel can often be the pathway to practicing empathy. But travel alone won’t do it. We need to be mindful of keeping our eyes and ears open and our mouth closed. We need to listen in order to understand. When you think about it, our curiosity and desire for knowledge naturally inclines us to listen. When we want to know we are all ears. This kind of listening will prompt us to ask more poignant questions.
Perhaps we will meet someone and think to ourselves, “She seems a bit distant, a bit cold. She’s nice enough, but not as friendly as I expected.” We may allow our observations to lead to judgment; she must have a disagreeable disposition.
Then, during conversation, we may learn that she is widowed, and that she herself has cancer. And young children. It’s being managed, sure, but she’s trying to hold her family and her business together and she feels a bit tired. And so we must tear up the story we were writing in favor of a new one. One that is more accurate and meaningful because it is not our own. It is the life of another, no less special than our own.