The Missing Essential: Empathy

By Donna Gibbs, LCMHCS

My dad makes a mean chess pie. It’s incredible. In fact, it’s such an amazing pie that it was featured in Our State Magazine a few years back with a full-page picture of my dad’s handsome face, and a story about his incredible pie. Of course, they included the recipe, with all of the essential ingredients, and even a few recommendations regarding non-essential add-ons. My first experiment with cooking as a young tween involved cooking this pie. I gathered my ingredients together, skillfully followed the directions (so I thought), and pulled out of the oven what looked like a masterpiece of perfection. Later, when I decided to taste my work of art, I was shocked when my taste buds encountered the truth. It was awful! (I can’t emphasize the word “awful” enough!) What I soon discovered is that these ingredients were carefully planned, and each ingredient truly was essential. Odd as it may be, this pie contains vinegar. Because of the sugar, you would never notice. But without the sugar… well, you can imagine the shockingly bitter disappointment of that vinegary taste! Sugar is an essential ingredient in a pie, especially a pie that contains vinegar!

Essential is a word that has been thrown out a lot lately. We’ve focused throughout the COVID season on essential employees, and have rightfully given great honor to those who serve in positions that we can’t live without.

But we’re in times of great turmoil and conflict, and we are still missing an essential ingredient.

That missing essential ingredient is empathy.

Wikipedia defines empathy as “the capacity to understand or feel what another person is experiencing from within their frame of reference, that is, the capacity to place oneself in another’s position.”

The word empathize is appropriately a verb. Empathy requires intention, action, and effort. It is not a passive experience. Honestly, sometimes empathy is also a very uncomfortable effort that may feel more like an unwelcomed stretch, or a kick in the gut.

In short, sometimes it is hard to welcome empathy. Sometimes we just don’t want to expend the energy or experience the discomfort that is required to immerse ourselves into the differing perspective and experiences of another person. But empathy is essential, nonetheless.

Healthy relationships are impossible without empathy.

Marriage relationships.

Parenting relationships.

Church relationships.

Community relationships.

When families are in conflict, churches are in conflict, or communities are in conflict, it is often because we are without empathy. The absence of this essential ingredient creates a form of sociopathology. Whenever we have a personal point of pain (our story), we tend to turn inward. We rehash our hurts, and we focus primarily on our own perspective. We rehearse and review our thoughts in the internal dialogue of our minds. We each have an internal narrative that is tainted by our own experiences and opinions. From that narrative, we talk, inflating our own opinions and giving additional weight to our own experiences, but we’re not listening well to the experiences of others. This repetition of care regarding primarily ourselves and our view of the world numbs us from the ability to have compassion or remorse towards others who view life differently.

This approach, devoid of empathy, leaves a vinegary-bitter taste in the mouth.

Right now, our country is in a storm. Bitterness will be our demise. We will not survive this storm without empathy.

One of the essential ingredients of counseling is empathy. If I cannot fully immerse myself into the hurts, emotions, and thoughts of another person, then I am fully crippled to help facilitate the journey to healing. Yes, this empathetic immersion requires a sacrifice. For me, it has been the sacrifice of decades of exposure to secondary trauma. I won’t pretend to suggest that the sacrifice is easy. It isn’t for me, and it won’t be easy for you.

But we have a Savior who sacrificed everything for our healing, because genuine healing demands a sacrifice!

Yes, genuine empathy is a sacrifice, but it changes everything. Genuine empathy removes the assumption of ill-will that is destroying our marriages, churches, and communities. It displays our shared humanity, it personalizes a position, and it fosters unity. The results of empathy are worth the sacrifice!

But how do we add this essential ingredient?

The solution is simple.

Speak less. Listen more.

Frankly, we live life as if we had two mouths and one ear.

But God created us with two ears and one mouth.

And, sometimes we’re only bending one ear…at best.

Moving forward, let’s commit to living marriage, family, church, and community with two ears and one mouth. Today, let’s listen doubly more than we talk. Let’s ask questions. Not about opinions, but about life stories. “What’s your story?” is a powerful start. Because strong, gut-deep opinions are most often born out of a personal story.

And every story matters.

Every person’s story is waiting to be told.

And heard.

To clarify, empathy doesn’t require that you’ve experienced the same story. Empathy only requires that you be willing to actively and intentionally imagine what it would be like to live with that story. To fully immerse yourself in that imagined reality. I often assign couples a “Typical Day” exercise in which they are to intentionally seek to imagine life from the perspective of their mate for a 24-hour period, from the time their feet hit the floor until their head meets the pillow that night. They are to imagine the fears, responsibilities, stressors, hopes, interactions, challenges, and vulnerabilities. The fruit of an exercise like this? When you allow yourself to be immersed in another person’s story, understanding and appreciation are fertilized.

Sorrow is born.

Bridges are built.

Walls are shattered.

Healing begins.

I wrote a book about resilience a few years ago. The topic is a passion of mine. Many of us are praying for resilience in our country. We’ve had a long, hard, and confusing season. Perhaps the same is true of your marriage. Or your church.  I am here to say that without empathy we will not have resilience. Gratefully, resilience doesn’t always mean that we bounce back… some things won’t be the same and don’t need to be the same. Resilience often means that we bounce forward, growing stronger through suffering. Our country needs resilience. Perhaps your marriage needs resilience. Let empathy fan the flame!

With the help of Jesus, who modeled empathy so beautifully, we will shine brightly in a divided country. We will place the blocks on the foundation for healing, one conversation at a time!

Romans 12:15 New International Version (NIV)
“Rejoice with those who rejoice; mourn with those who mourn.”

Philippians 2:3-4 New International Version (NIV)
“Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves,  not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others.”

1 Peter 3:8 New International Version (NIV)
“Finally, all of you, be like-minded, be sympathetic, love one another, be compassionate and humble.”

Ephesians 5:1-2 New International Version (NIV)
“Follow God’s example, therefore, as dearly loved children  and walk in the way of love, just as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us as a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.”

Donna Gibbs, LCHMCS

Donna Gibbs, co-owner of Summit Wellness Centers, PLLC, is author of the recent releases, Silencing Insecurity and Becoming Resilient. Donna has authored numerous other books, her blogs are frequently shared in various media outlets, and she is commonly featured on radio broadcasts across America, and occasionally internationally as well. Donna has been providing individuals and families the hope and help they need for more than twenty years as a Licensed Clinical Mental Health Counselor Supervisor and a Board-certified Professional Christian Counselor. A member of the American Association of Christian Counselors (AACC), she is a leading professional provider for Focus on the Family, Christian Care Network, r3Continuum, FINDINGbalance, and Samaritan’s Purse. 

Follow Donna’s author page at for daily encouragement, the weekly blog, and updates regarding events and speaking engagements.  

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