Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Empathy: The Forgotten Purpose of Fasting


I can totally relate with you: you're just like me

Are Mormons more empathetic than the average person?  In some ways, I would emphatically say yes.  We make baby quilts for new mothers and we take meals to members recovering from illness.  We shovel the snow and rake the leaves for the widows and for the more feeble among us.  We spend an enormous amount of time serving each other in callings and as home or visiting teachers.  I could go on.   Unfortunately, in some other ways, our ability to relate to others goes about as far as our reflection in a house of mirrors.

Most of our service (and empathy) in the church is reserved for other members.  The service we give to less active members and non-Mormons is at times tainted with ulterior motives for reactivation or conversion.  Sometimes the church welfare we provide has strings attached to church attendance and other forms of compliance with church rules.  We have absolutely no interest in hearing the stories of the disaffected who have been cast out or shamed out of our midst in their failure to conform to the Mormon pattern of righteousness.  Our apathy would quickly give way to aversion or fear if someone we knew actually started telling us the reasons that they became disaffected with the church.

When we discuss the rescue of "lost sheep" in our meetings, it is not uncommon to hear someone insert a caution against "too much" empathy.  "Love the sinner but hate the sin" too often becomes a justification for us to not fully accept someone because of their choices.  Others say, "Don't open your mind too much, or your brain might fall out."  When I was in seminary, I had a teacher write the following statements on the board, each one pointing to the next with an arrow:
  1. First, we Tolerate
  2. Then we Sympathize
  3. Finally, we Embrace
The message was clear: don't tolerate certain behaviors in others, or you will eventually embrace those same behaviors.  What a load of hooey.  I recently made friends with someone who is openly gay.  So far, I'm still attracted to my wife.  I guess I have literally embraced my friend (by giving him a hug), so maybe my seminary teacher was right.  Maybe if we stop filtering our empathy, some day, we will feel a desire to give a warm embrace to every human being.

Our lack of empathy as Mormons often extends beyond our immediate surroundings to include a fatalistic worldview.  Wars in Africa and the destruction of the environment are all part of the inevitable degradation of the state of humanity in the latter days.  The most we can do is keep paying our tithing and sending out more missionaries while we wait for the fire that will finally cleanse the earth.  In our unconscious psyche, we want more bad news - we expect it and it signifies that the perfect ending is getting nearer.  We certainly don't believe we can actually stop the tide of human suffering, corrupt politics, and environmental destruction.  A few of us half-wish we could speed all of those things up - bring it on. 


Not to be seen of men, but to see them more clearly

Happily, we have been given a tool to exercise our empathy: fasting.  Unhappily, we seem to have forgotten that part of it.  Here are the reasons you've probably heard people give for why we fast:
  • A test or demonstration of our faith and humility
  • An opportunity for blessings
  • Exercise to make our spirit stronger than our body
  • Spiritual purification that can invite personal revelation
  • A reminder and opportunity to help the poor and hungry
  • Reminder of our dependence on God
I like this list.  Those are some good reasons for fasting.  But I think we can order from this spiritual menu and still come away without the main course of empathy.  We can go through the motions, but like a parable, we can miss the deeper message.  And yes, it is possible to give money to the poor without feeling any empathy for them.  In fact, I imagine it's possible, though uncommon, to do so while harboring a feeling of superiority or even of hostility.  But maybe it's even bigger than just learning to empathize with the poor and hungry.  What if fasting is actually a pattern that God gave us that we should be applying in other areas of our lives?

Consider the steps of fasting:
  1. Experience something difficult and painful (feeling hungry and thirsty)
  2. Feel empathy upon realizing other people are going through similar pain
  3. Do something to help those other people (fast offering)
Wow, there's a lot we could apply this to, but let's first explore how fasting could be used as a tool for developing empathy.

Isaiah certainly evokes a feeling of empathy in his description of fasting:
And if thou draw out thy soul to the hungry, and satisfy the afflicted soul; then shall thy light rise in obscurity, and thy darkness be as the noonday (Isaiah 58:10)
I've always drawn out my soul to at least one hungry person every time I've fasted.  Yeah, it was myself.  But give me some credit – I sure did feel my own pain deeply.  And I don't think that's a bad thing if we can avoid self-pity and instead turn our pain into self-mastery.  But maybe it's time to open the window of our empathy a little bit wider.

Have you ever sat at length, just pondering what it would be like to feel hungry all of the time?  What would it do to your sense of dignity if you were compelled to search for scraps in a dumpster behind a restaurant?  Wouldn't it be harder to maintain a calm or happy demeanor if the pain of hunger was always putting you on edge?  Would you lose your temper more often with your children if they were constantly asking for more food? Food that you couldn't provide, each time reminding you of your own inadequacy as a provider?

Does your own hunger while fasting motivate you to educate yourself about how many people around you suffer from hunger?  Do you actually try to help them?  Does your empathy extend to non-Mormons?  Does it extend beyond your own neighborhood?  Do you help your children to take this journey of empathy with you?

Okay, I'm done interrogating, but now let's consider how other life experiences could lead us to greater empathy.  Here's a list with a few examples:
  • Physical illness or disability
  • Depression or other types of mental illness
  • Death of a loved one
  • Pain resulting from sin
  • Failed relationship or divorce
  • Poverty or homelessness
  • Loneliness
  • Smaller trials (stress, fatigue, insults, embarrassment)
You've probably experienced something from this list.  If you look back on that experience, who did you seek out for comfort?  Do you get more comfort from people who have experienced the same kind of pain?

Okay, it's time to take a closer look at how to apply the three-step pattern we learn through fasting to the examples above, or to any difficult life experience for that matter.

1. Experience something difficult and painful

Fasting might be the only spiritual law in which we are asked to inflict physical pain upon ourselves (can you think of any other trials that we intentionally bring down on ourselves?) No wonder some people consider us crazy!

I'm not suggesting that we should seek out other trials or enjoy them (trials seem to come to us all on their own, sooner or later), but:

Do we allow ourselves to truly experience trials in a way to develop empathy?  Here are some thoughts and ideas:
  • Without dwelling on our misery or without trying to prolong our pain, can we observe it while it is present and try to understand the nature of what we are feeling?
  • Write about what we are feeling
  • Consider others we know who are or who have experienced a similar trial
  • Consider people we don’t know who may have a worse form of the same trial
  • Try to move on from our pain, but retain a remembrance to call up when empathy is needed later on
  • Sometimes we might shut off our empathy as a defense mechanism.  But is what we gain worth what we lose? – Isn’t one purpose of life to come and have trials so we can become more like God?

2. Feel empathy upon realizing other people are going through similar pain

Do we have to actually experience a trial in order to gain empathy?
As I had said, I do not suggest we should look for other ways to seek out our own physical pain, but what other methods could exist for us to develop empathy?
  • Take people at their word when they tell us about a trial, or even better, consider that it could be worse than they are letting on
  • Recognize that others may experience the same trial in a different way than we do
  • Open our eyes to those around us
  • Open our eyes to those far away from us (this can be hard)
  • Learn what we can about their trials
  • Try to imagine what it would feel like
  • Use approximations. Example: people who can’t fast for medical reasons – are there other ways they could try to obtain empathy for the poor and hungry? What about giving up dessert, or limiting some other comfort not enjoyed by the less fortunate? Another example: disability awareness day at work where some employees spend the whole day in a wheelchair.
  • Stay connected to people whose circumstances are more difficult than our own.  Examples of privileged people who still stay connected with the poor: King Benjamin working for his support, Pope Francis hugging a disfigured man and inviting the homeless to eat with him.
  • Many of us look at our past inferior circumstances as something to forget and we like to think that anyone could rise above it like we did, forgetting other advantages that we had going into it (don’t do that!)

3. Do something to help those other people

Once we feel empathy, how can we let it work in us to help others in pain?
  • The golden rule: What would you have wanted when you were in that trial?
  • Think of new ways to help: beyond giving money, can we offer time and talents?
  • Do our life goals just consist of improving our own situation (bigger house, more travel etc.), or do they also include being able to help more people in more meaningful ways?
  • Are there other ways we can restructure our lives that would facilitate us having more empathy? Or conversely, if we achieve new levels of empathy, would it make us want to enact fundamental changes to the way we live our lives?


A new perspective on trials

Considering this pattern can give us a new perspective on the trials we go through.  Consider this: one positive thing we can take away from any trial is the empathy we gain for others.  On the other hand, what a wasted life experience if we don’t gain that empathy and let our trial motivate us to help others!  It's like the old saying: don’t let any crisis go to waste!  As a final consideration, how would children grow up if we somehow could prevent them from experiencing any trials?  That's one seemingly happy story without a happy ending.


How would Satan distort this pattern of empathy?

I haven't talked with him about it, but I think this is how Satan likes us to approach our trials:
  1. Experience something difficult and painful, but only consider it an injustice
  2. Feel sorry for ourselves and turn our focus inward instead of outward
  3. Instead of helping others with the same trial, become proud and judgmental, saying “I’ve done that, I’ve had worse, stop complaining”
We've certainly got some scriptural examples of people following these steps.  Consider what happened with the woman taken in adultery.  Lots of people were gathered around ready to cast stones, right up to the point when they started to consider their own (similar?) sins.  As another example, look at the Nephites at the end of the Book of Mormon.  After they won a few major battles, undoubtedly losing loved ones in the process, they became proud and more callous about the death and torture of the Lamanites.  And certainly we see it in our own lives, in those around us, and in ourselves.


Christ’s atonement is the perfect example of the pattern of empathy

Jesus Christ experienced all of our trials.  He knows all of our pain, and He is full of compassion for us as a result.  Because of his suffering, he can succor (or heal) us. 
He will take upon him their infirmities .. that he may know … how to succor his people. (Alma 7:12)
Although we are not perfect, and can’t heal like Christ does, we can emulate his example of empathy and healing, by following the pattern he showed us through his atonement, and which we practice through fasting.



I recently finished the book Middlemarch, by George Eliot. The main character is a woman who endures a nightmare of a marriage. Later on, she learns about another couple going through a difficult marriage and realizes that she can do something to help them, although it could hurt her own reputation and her friends tell her not to do it.  In defense of her decision to offer help, she says,
What do we live for, if not to make life less difficult to each other?
I like that. 


The Two Great Commandments

The purpose of life is summed up in the two great commandments: To love God with all of our hearts and to love our neighbor as our self (Mark 12:30-31).

How can we love our neighbor as our self unless we have empathy?

As disciples of Christ, we should extend our empathy to all people.  Mormons have a history of persecution that is a well from which we can draw empathy for those who are persecuted in our day.  At the very least, let us not be among the persecutors.  To the LGBT community, we can sincerely empathize: yes, we know exactly what it's like to not have your marriages recognized.  To the liberal (socialists): yes, we know what it is to long for Zion.  And to the homeless: yes, we know what it's like to be kicked out of your home wandering the plains. Surely as we feel and express this empathy, it will motivate us to helpful action.

May we truly start to experience our fasting.  May we begin to fully experience all of our trials (and all of our joys).  Therein we will fulfill our life's purpose, and therein we will find the empathy that, when universal, will actually bring heaven on earth.  And we won't even have to wait for that cleansing fire.