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Empathy and Saturday Night Live

I love SNL. This clip aired on Saturday, October 17 (or maybe Sunday, October 18. I saw it on You Tube on Monday, October 19). I hope it is OK to post it here. If it doesn't work, here is the link:

There is so much to unpack here. We'll talk more on the other side.

Hoo boy. As funny as this is, it is a gut-punch to me.

Empathy, or mercy, is one of my spiritual gifts. Empathy is defined as the ability to understand and share the feelings of another. As a spiritual gift, empathy, or mercy, is "the ability to identify with and actually feel the physical, mental, spiritual, and emotional pain or distress of others and to feel the absolute necessity to do something to relieve them." (Bryant, 1997). Like most spiritual gifts, there are two sides to it. On one hand, empathy allows me to understand another's pain and move to help. On the other hand, empathy allows me to understand another's pain and for the sake of my own mental health I must look away. This bothers me.

One of my favorite hymns is "Here I am Lord." Perhaps you know it:

I, the Lord, of sea and sky, I have heard my people cry. All who dwell in dark and sin my hand will save.

I who made the stars of night, I will make their darkness bright. Who will bear my light to them? Whom shall I send?

Here I am Lord. Is it I, Lord? I have heard you calling in the night. I will go, Lord, if you lead me. I will hold your people in my heart.

I, the Lord of snow and rain, I have borne my people's pain. I have wept for love of them. They turn away.

I will break their hearts of stone, give them hearts for love alone. I will speak my word to them. Whom shall I send?

Here I am Lord. Is it I, Lord? I have heard you calling in the night. I will go, Lord, if you lead me. I will hold your people in my heart.

I, the Lord of wind and flame, I will tend the poor and lame, I will set a feast for them. My hand will save.

Finest bread I will provide till their hearts be satisfied. I will give my life to them. WHom shall I send?

Here I am Lord. Is it I, Lord? I have heard you calling in the night. I will go, Lord, if you lead me. I will hold your people in my heart.

I think I really mean it, but as in the SNL sketch, if it means getting my hands dirty or giving up my comfortable life, do I really mean it? I've been a nurse and a school librarian/teacher. In those capacities I have worked with people of many races, religions, and from both ends of the socioeconomic spectrum. I've done some things well and made some mistakes. Sometimes the things I thought I did well I realize now were mistakes. Sometimes the things I thought were mistakes turned out to be just the right thing.

I've been struggling to understand why I don't feel called to go protest, or take my nursing skills on the road, or to serve at soup kitchens. I can say that I live in a small town where protests don't happen, my nursing license is inactive, and I don't know where soup kitchens are, but those are excuses. It is true, though - I am not called to do these things.

I was called to be a nurse, for a while. Then I was called to become a librarian. Now I am called to live on an alpaca farm, and I thank God every day for that one! Why do I think this? It was too easy. God opened doors and I walked through them. There were other things I thought about doing, but it was clear that God didn't intend those for me. The enthusiasm wasn't there. The resources didn't come. I just never bothered to really look into those ideas.

When I was in college I didn't want to be a nurse because my mom, one aunt, and I think 3 cousins were nurses, or were already studying nursing. I wanted to do something different - But then I had one of those "Come to Jesus" moments, and realized that just because so many others in my family were nurses was no reason not to be one, too. I took one of those aptitude tests to help me decide what to do after I graduated. I remember the counselor asking what my post-graduation plans were before he shared my results. I had just been accepted to nursing school. He said that was really interesting. He shared that Harvard students had been employed to try to throw the test by answering the way they thought they should answer based on what they thought a person interested in a particular career field would answer. They couldn't do it. My results? Straight up nursing. There were three categories - I think one was interest and one was aptitude, but I don't really remember. But I remember he was amazed that across the board this interest test said I should be a nurse. Clearly, this was what God intended for me.

I was a good nurse. I worked on a medical-surgical unit after graduation before I entered the Air Force. I loved that job and probably would have stayed if I hadn't already been commissioned. In the Air Force I worked in maternal-child health. Our 30 bed hospital had a peri- and post-natal unit, a newborn nursery, and a labor and delivery unit. Based on the needs of the day, I worked all three. Sometimes more than one. I didn't like it. I thought I wanted to be a trauma nurse.

When I left the Air Force I moved to Washington DC for 2 reasons: my sister lived in Alexandria, VA and my dad had a sailboat on the Chesapeake. I took a job at a large teaching hospital. I thought I needed ICU experience to do trauma care (not necessarily, it turns out), so I took a job in the surgical ICU. We took care of trauma patients, open heart surgery patients, and other post-surgical patients that needed intensive care. One of the advantages to this job, I thought, was that the SICU nurses responded to major trauma events in the ER.

Finally it was my turn to take the training, and it was fascinating. But while we were in the classroom attached to the ER, we could hear (and feel) the tension rise and knew that a trauma patient had just come in. After lunch we learned that the patient was a 17 year old boy who had been in a jeep when it rolled over. He had significant head trauma. There was a lot of fist bumping and an attitude of, "What a great save!" I was sickened. I could only think of the boys parents, who had been told that their son was alive (there was hope), but he had a significant head injury (even if he lived he would never be the same). He was admitted to my ICU where he died a few days later, shortly before Christmas.

I realized something that day: I couldn't do the trauma stuff. I just don't have the emotional stamina for it. If that boy had turned right instead of left, maybe he wouldn't have been there. I just couldn't get my head around it.

I tried - I really did. I still find trauma fascinating, but I can't watch bloody movies. I went to the head nurse and asked to be excused from the ER responsibilities. I told her I would do anything else. It was optional, after all, until I declined and then it became a condition of employment (not my employment, thankfully). And, just to be clear, I am NOT saying that ER nurses lack empathy. I am only saying that my empathy made it unhealthy for me.

When a smaller Virginia hospital opened a cardiac surgery program I went there. I loved taking care of open heart surgery patients. The cardiac rehabilitation department did all of the pre-operative teaching, and when the person responsible for that went out on maternity leave the CSU nurses (cardiac surgery unit) took on the responsibility. I thought I would love this - and I did because I like teaching (another of my gifts) - until the day when we were admitting our post-surgical patient and I looked with horror at the face of the person I had spoken with just the day before. If you've never seen someone come out of cardiac surgery, they don't look very good. Color is not great and at least then there were tubes coming out of every orifice, and some orifices created just for the occasion (cardiac surgery is less invasive now, I think, so if it is on your calendar don't panic). I realized that I didn't want to know about spouses, kids, grandkids, pets, hobbies, etc until I knew which way this was going to go. If the patient was going to recover normally and quickly then I was happy to meet the family and hear all about everyone. If the patient wasn't going to recover normally, then I did need to meet the family and needed to know who my patient was as a person, but I needed a little time to figure out the situation. That particular patient did fine, but I was a wreck for the first hour.

That is the empathy thing. I did have some PTSD from a trauma patient in the Air Force which may have contributed to my reaction to the patient in the ER. My mom was a hospice nurse and couldn't really understand my desire to be an ICU nurse. My dad was in the airline industry and to carry that analogy and my Air Force experience into this - I realized that the trauma nurses were the fighter pilots of the hospital world. ICU nurses are the helicopter pilots. I didn't like living on the edge and pulling 9 Gs all the time like fighter pilots do.

I became a nurse educator, teaching nurses rather than patients. I loved that, too (again, teaching is another of my spiritual gifts). But then when Jeff was in first grade I discovered the library., and changed direction. I found the Masters of Education program I wanted to attend. I registered and was accepted. Originally, all but one of the classes would be taught remotely at a location much closer to my home. When that was cancelled, the first session of my second class, I already had some friends that I could carpool with to the university 2 1/2 hours away. I worried about how I would do my student teaching because we had 2 small kids, daycare, a mortgage and would lose my income. Guess what? The school district called to offer me a job and a signing bonus and said my first year in the library would be on a provisional license and would count for my student teaching. God called, I followed and God opened the doors.

I loved being a librarian. I loved sharing books, and teaching the kids. I loved dressing up as book characters or made up characters to talk about books. I loved helping a child find just the right book, or ordering a book with a specific child in mind because I knew she/he would love it.

I admit it. I had some favorites. One was Kimani. He was in kindergarten when I first met him. Just a cute little thing who loved everybody. When he was in second grade he began coming to school in clothes that were clearly inappropriate for the weather (sweat pants on a hot day) and clearly too big (they were his mother's). I talked to his teacher and went to the store and bought 3 outfits. The teacher and I agreed that we would give them to him as needed, when he wasn't dressed appropriately. The first time, Kimani was thrilled with his new Star Wars t-shirt! The second time he was pleased. The third time, his mother called. She wasn't happy with me. She said Kimani had clothes but he chose sometimes to wear things she would not have chosen for him (what child doesn't?). And then she said something that chilled me - if something happened to Kimani and she had to call the police she might not tell them the right clothes he was wearing because I gave him new ones. I NEVER thought of that. She was in a situation where she had to think what she would do when, not if, something happened. I was in a position where I worried like all moms do, but the likelihood was so slim that I didn't really give it much thought.

Two examples of empathy. One kept me from a career path that I am actually grateful I never followed. Another was meant to be a kindness but misfired.

And now my empathy is bringing me anxiety again. I feel for the people who live in famine. I ache for the mothers whose children are starving. I can only imagine what it is like to live in a war zone, or to have children protesting in Thailand with the threat of violence hanging over them - I can imagine, but I can't allow myself to imagine too much. I am deeply ashamed that my country is selfishly separating children from their parents at the border - and THAT trauma is something we will all have to deal with in a few years. The parents of 545 children can't be located - probably deported (Armus, 2020). I imagine the agony of parents making the impossible decision to leave home and family because that is the only safe choice, and then being jailed or separated from their children when they get here. I weep for the children who don't have enough to eat - even in our own country. Christmas is coming, and my heart will break - again - when I hear Natalie Cole sing, "The Little Boy that Santa Claus Forgot." Victims of domestic violence are hidden away in their Covid bubbles. People are dying alone, and I am thankful that my own parents died before Covid made the jump to people. People of color are still being repressed and murdered. The list goes on.

But do I drink the 5-hour Empathy drink? I am making a conscious effort to stay home more - there is a pandemic, and if I believe I was called to be on my farm, then this is the work I am to do. I pray. I empathize. I read books to learn what it is like to be someone other than a white woman of privilege. But how does any of that help anyone? It feels like empty help. So am I avoiding the 5-hour Empathy drink? Even as I am writing this, my stomach is in knots.

Maybe I don't need to drink 5-hour Empathy. I have empathy, but what can I do?

Nothing, if I don't first understand.

This is where it gets a little tricky for me. I was always the first to invite someone to eat with me (now I eat at home so I don't have that opportunity, otherwise I would). I have been known to notice a visitor at church who doesn't know how to find hymns in the hymnal and invite him to sit with me. I drive people to the doctor because I can't stand the thought that someday I might be lonely and have no one. I look forward to the gift drives at church or at school at the holidays. I will make a pie to take to the community Thanksgiving meal. I have already voted, and I am on a first name basis with my Senator.

But I am beginning to believe that God really and truly isn't calling me to do more - to go on a mission trip, or to protest, or to serve soup. I am realizing that God is asking me to use my gifts - mercy (empathy), teaching, and giving. I am writing this blog, partly because it makes me sort things out for myself, and partly because I hope that it will be instructive or inspiring to someone who reads it. I can still help people when I am asked, but maybe if I am not figuring out solutions or ways to help it is because that is not where God wants me to be. If God opens doors I walk through them. If I can't find the door, or window for that matter, maybe that is God telling me to look in a different direction. And if I create my own door or window? Well, that is my ego and me trying to be God, instead of trying to follow God.

I'm also learning that I cannot do it all. I MUST take care of myself, and allow myself to rest, and heal. Empathy is a gift, and it is painful. I have burned out of two professions - I loved nursing and I loved being a school librarian, but there were enough parts of each that caused me to feel pain and anguish at the things I could not do, change, or accomplish. I am learning that God is asking me to use my gifts wisely, and not to try to use gifts I don't have.

I don't have the answers. These are my thoughts, and I am prepared for someone to chastise me. But we need to drink the 5-hour Empathy. Because until we look beyond our comfortable lives, until we really try to understand what it is like to be someone else, living another kind of life, we can't begin to help. I've heard several times recently that the church - the faith of our fathers - is seriously lacking in imagination. If we can't imagine something better, or imagine what we think God is calling us to, we'll never get there. I used to teach the kids in the library that we can't know what is possible if we don't know what has been. We can't know what must change, and how to change it if we don't know what is.

We need to drink the 5-hour Empathy.

So I am using my gift of empathy and trying to live into God's call for my life. My empathy isn't worth that much until I combine it with someone else's gift of prophecy, and another's gift of ministry, and another's gift for healing, and another's gift of miracles. If we put all of our gifts together, we become the body of Christ.

And here is something else I've been thinking. No one spiritual gift is more valuable than another, and none of us have all of them. If your gift is prophecy, then prophesy. If your gift is pastoring, then pastor. If you have the gift of healing, heal. If you have the gift of teaching, teach. If you can work miracles, work miracles. If you are a giver, be generous. If you are compassionate, be cheerful about it. If you are a leader, be diligent.

Do it all to the glory of God. Use your gifts well, and don't berate yourself for lacking a gift you don't have. Together, we make one body. Do not expect me to have the same gifts, or to be as enthusiastic about participating in activities requiring your gifts as you are. I will extend the same courtesy to you.

Here are Paul's letters concerning spiritual gifts, first to the Corinthians and second to the Romans (NRSV):

1 Corinthians 12:1-12

12 Now concerning spiritual gifts, brothers and sisters, I do not want you to be uninformed. 2 You know that when you were pagans, you were enticed and led astray to idols that could not speak. 3 Therefore I want you to understand that no one speaking by the Spirit of God ever says “Let Jesus be cursed!” and no one can say “Jesus is Lord” except by the Holy Spirit.

4 Now there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit; 5 and there are varieties of services, but the same Lord; 6 and there are varieties of activities, but it is the same God who activates all of them in everyone. 7 To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good. 8 To one is given through the Spirit the utterance of wisdom, and to another the utterance of knowledge according to the same Spirit, 9 to another faith by the same Spirit, to another gifts of healing by the one Spirit, 10 to another the working of miracles, to another prophecy, to another the discernment of spirits, to another various kinds of tongues, to another the interpretation of tongues. 11 All these are activated by one and the same Spirit, who allots to each one individually just as the Spirit chooses. 12 For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ.

Romans 12: 1-8

12 I appeal to you therefore, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. 2 Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect.

3 For by the grace given to me I say to everyone among you not to think of yourself more highly than you ought to think, but to think with sober judgment, each according to the measure of faith that God has assigned. 4 For as in one body we have many members, and not all the members have the same function, 5 so we, who are many, are one body in Christ, and individually we are members one of another. 6 We have gifts that differ according to the grace given to us: prophecy, in proportion to faith; 7 ministry, in ministering; the teacher, in teaching; 8 the exhorter, in exhortation; the giver, in generosity; the leader, in diligence; the compassionate, in cheerfulness.

So here's the bottom line: spend time in prayer discerning God's call for you. Use your gifts. Together, with the grace of God, we can ease the suffering and bring justice to our world. I don't know how, but I am not God. God knows.

If you are interested in assessing your own spiritual gifts, here is a free online assessment: 

Armus, Teo. "The parents of 545 children separated at the border still haven’t been found. The pandemic isn’t helping." Washington Post. October 21, 2020.

Bryant, Charles. "Your Spiritual Gifts Inventory." From Rediscovering Our Spiritual Gifts. Nashville: Upper Room Books. 1997.

Saturday Night Live. "5 hour Empathy." SNL. Accessed October 20, 2020.

Schutte, Dan. "Here I Am, Lord." The United Methodist Hymnal. Nashville: The United Methodist Publishing House, 1996. p. 593.

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