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3 Simple Steps Toward Empathy: Reflections on Jesus and a Nazi Death Camp

Jesus was the most empathetic person to ever live.

People were constantly telling him their stories. Parents, paralytics, prostitutes. All kinds of people pleading with him to understand their plight and offer them some help. In response, Jesus listened closely to gather information, gave people personal attention, and often traveled long distances to intervene in their situations.

When someone came to Jesus with a need, his reflex was to:

1. Discover the details

2. Imagine the individual, and

3. Enlist himself in their experience.

These are three simple steps that we can all implement as we journey toward living more empathetic lives. These intentional responses to other peoples’ pain are what set Jesus apart from other religious leaders. These are the things that marked his life.

A Rabbi in Israel

Jesus consistently gave individual attention to people who were hurting and needy. He understood that people were created to be seen and heard. Often he offered the most attention to the ones who had been unseen, unheard, and flat out rejected by religious folks. The lepers, the prostitutes, the tax collectors. Even in large crowds, Jesus was known to single people out and make personal connections with them. I suppose this is some sanctified form of what psychologists call the “individual victim effect”. (Think Zacchaeus or the woman with the issue of blood.)

Jesus also took it upon himself to become a part of peoples’ stories. Once he had the details and embraced them as individuals he couldn’t help but to get his hands and feet into their fight. He showed up for people, and he was in it for the long haul. He did whatever it would take to bring about their healing and wholeness. When he got word that Lazarus had died, he traveled from Perea to Bethany (at least a 15 mile walk!) to weep with the family and perform a miracle.

But what Jesus did for people physically is a mere whisper of what he did for us spiritually.

Jesus came to earth to live as a human so that he could discover the details of our depravity first-hand. And it’s important to consider that he came as a baby. He could have dropped in as a fully grown man—that certainly would have sped up the process. But he needed to do childhood and adolescence so that he could fully understand us. He needed those details in order to empathize with the broad scope of our human experience. He needed to feel the full weight of our waywardness from the cradle to the grave.

In conversations about empathy we often hear the expression, “Put yourself in someone else’s shoes.” But Jesus didn’t just put himself in our shoes, he put himself in our sin (2 Corinthians 5:21). He felt the gravity of our sin when he sweat droplets of blood in the Garden of Gethsemane. He endured all of God’s wrath toward that sin when he hung suffocating on the cross.

That is a brand of sacrificial empathy that the world has only seen once. An empathy that led to the brutal death of an innocent man, saving humanity from certain damnation.

That is a standard of empathy that we could never attain, but we are still called to follow Jesus’ example. And while our empathy can’t save the world from its sins, real empathy will always require a sort of death on the part of the empathizer.

In order to truly empathize with others, you have to die to your presumptions, your politics, and your point of view. You must take off the lenses of your personal experience. You must lay aside your preferences and opinions. That is the only way to walk in someone else’s shoes.

You can’t ask to wear my shoes and then complain about how I laced them. You can’t take them home and clean them up before you put them on. You can’t walk a few steps and then start going your own way.

That’s not empathy. That’s high-functioning apathy. A way of lazily feigning concern while making excuses for your unwillingness to die.

It just so happens that the steps I’ve outlined here fit snuggly into an acronym (y’all know I love all things acrostic!) that is both instructive and easy to remember: D.I.E.

Discover the details—ask questions and listen well.
Imagine the individual—see and validate people one at a time.
Enlist in their experience—be in it for the long haul.

Now, don’t let this acronym deceive you. I don’t believe empathy can be taught, at least not in a lecture about a three-step process. Empathy requires hands-on field work—real experiences with real people in real time. I am learning this daily (and I still have A LOT of work to do!), but I can trace my journey toward true empathy back to a single moment in my life.

A Suitcase in Poland

In 2013, I visited Auschwitz concentration camp in Poland. It is surreal to walk on land where such unspeakable human atrocities took place. It was so crowded with tourists, but it was strikingly silent. I suppose the things you learn on a tour of a Nazi death camp spoil your appetite for side conversations. And while I didn’t show up there in pursuit of a crash course in empathy, that’s what I got.

I was forced to discover the details, imagine the individual, and enlist in the experience. Walking through the gas chambers, standing in the incinerator room, touching the bunk beds, gazing at the firing wall. I had two choices—either I was going to empathize or I would have to close my eyes.

Too many people choose to close their eyes to avoid the details and dehumanize the individual. This is not the way of Christ. We need to open our eyes to the things that are hard to look at, and believe the stories they tell. Like the things I saw at Auschwitz.

Piles of prisoners’ belongings that were left behind after the camp was liberated in 1945 are displayed behind glass. Carefully curated artifacts. Thousands of shoes, bowls, ponytails, eyeglasses and other personal effects. Hair-raising relics from a world that should have never existed.

But what has always been etched in my memory are the stacks of suitcases. Not because they were any more heartbreaking than the other items, but because they were inscribed with people’s names and addresses.

“Petr Eisler”, one said. I will always remember his name.

Photo I took of Petr Eisler’s suitcase in 2013.

Seeing this suitcase prominently displayed on top of countless others was my “identifiable victim effect” moment. Over a million people were murdered at Auschwitz, but so was Petr Eisler. He wasn’t born to be part of an estimated number—he was an individual. He had a suitcase. And as I stared at it through the protective glass, I experienced a moment of empathy like never before. I imagined a young man with his whole life ahead of him—making plans to be married or study physics or find honest work.

My research suggests that Petr was actually just two years old when he was registered at Auschwitz in May of 1944. He was brought there to be “exterminated”, and he never saw his suitcase again. My imagining wasn’t accurate, but it still did me some good.

A Lesson in Empathy

At Auschwitz, my entire being was flooded with immense grief. A kind of grief that felt hopeless, almost godless. It was unnerving, and I’d rather not experience anything like it again. Maybe I won’t. But I have opportunities every day to experience and express empathy in many different ways.

It’s worth pointing out that empathy is not just about grieving with people, but also about celebrating with them. The scriptures call us to take on both the weights and the wings of others. When you’re down, I’m down. When you’re soaring, I’m up there with you. Regardless of my own situation, I am called to empathize with yours.

It’s easy to die to myself when I’m five thousand miles from home, walking the grounds of a Nazi death camp. But how well do I empathize with the people I know, or see on the news, or scroll past on Facebook?

This is where I’m glad to follow the simple life of a Jewish rabbi with a radical propensity towards empathy. A savior who came down to earth, discovered the details of our sin, imagined each one of us wallowing in it for eternity, and responded by enlisting himself in our war against our unrighteousness. And thank God he led us to victory!

Jesus’ life is a lesson in empathy. He denied himself, saw our needs, and willingly died to meet them. His death paved the way for his resurrection, which gave way to his ascension back to heaven where he now sits interceding for us to this day.

He’s still in it for the long haul. I have so much to learn from that.

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