The Unmapped Experience: An Escort to Empathy

We had followed the map perfectly, but we still ended up lost. To put it in the contemporary vernacular . . . we had obeyed the voice on the GPS, but in the end we repeatedly heard in an irritating tone, “Recalculating.”

It was a difficult experience, to say the least. It significantly altered us, placing us on a new, positive trajectory, but it was not one for which we were prepared. Who among us can say they are thoroughly ready for an unexpected difficulty? I cannot, and some even call me organized. Like a GPS attempting to navigate journeyers in a rural South Dakota, the GPS’s screen displayed no road. To put it simply: We were lost.

But, let me start at the beginning.

We were going on a journey, and we had been given a map that we trusted completely. Moreover, we trusted the One who gave us the map. We had been told, “This is a high-quality map. It will guide you on your journey.”

We then conversed with others who had traveled a similar journey with this same, superior map. They affirmed what we already had been told and regaled us with stories of their adventures. They even included some guidelines, words of wisdom that described things to do/not to do. This generated some expectations for us on our journey. We reasoned that if we followed their guidelines, what could go wrong?

And so, we embarked on our journey with a map in hand and feeling confident with a sense of purpose.

We were excited and tenacious, particularly in the beginning. Granted, our journey was not always quite how we had envisioned it to be. If we had thought more carefully, we would have recognized in advance that a map provides only limited information. It fails to include how boring or lovely the scenery on the journey may be or how rough or smooth the road is. But when we began, our excitement overclouded any possible bumps in the road. Our imaginations only conjured up bright, sunny skies with white puffy clouds.

Once we were on the journey, we noticed what the map left unsaid: Some roads had numerous potholes; the hills were a little more treacherous than we had imagined; the valleys were a little deeper; and at times, sizeable boulders or large timbers obstructed the path. Still, we remained undeterred. We said to ourselves, “So what if we wore rose-colored glasses at first. These small unforeseen aspects of the journey were to be expected.”

We were resolute to carefully followed the map. We trusted this map because we trusted the One who gave it to us.

As I said previously, we had some expectations about our journey (and some of those expectations would come back to bite us). Some of our expectations were based on previous experiences, and some were from what others had told us about their journeys. They said, “Now, make sure you see this!” “Oh, you must take the time to see that!” “If you take this alternate route, then you will see this.” But, as it happened, we were unable to see and/or experience everything recommended. At times, the so-called “must-see-item” was just a little too far off course. Other times, our progress on the journey was slower than we had intended it to be. The terrain was a little more arduous, forcing us to slow down and hindering our ability to complete all we had planned. Naturally, we were disappointed when this occurred, but . . . still . . . we forged ahead.

We also sensed others’ expectations for us on our journey. Supportive people, who offered encouragement along the way, had expectations of the type of progress we would make, of what we would see, do, and experience. Who would want to disappoint them? And let us not forget the One who gave us the map in the first place! Certainly, the Giver of the Map must have had expectations for us, too?!?! After all, the One chose to give us this map, and there must have been a reason for the One to choose us. Right?!? So, armed with perceived expectations of others, we pushed onward.

And . . . whether we admitted or not, we were having our needs met by following the map.[1] Security. Respect. Approval. Acceptance. Fulfillment. Purpose. Contribution. Guidance. Direction. To matter. Meaning. Identity. Etc. So between our needs being met and the supportive expectations of others, we remained on the journey even when the map did not predict every detail.

But then the unthinkable happened. The map appeared to disintegrate. No longer was the map reliable. Life, as we knew it, was forever changed. Life was not continuing according to the map. Since this was not how we had foreseen our journey, we were unprepared. We had what we had thought was a dependable map, but now we were lost and unable to continue without a reliable map.

We had now entered unmapped territory.

Unmapped territories can take many forms.

  • We do not enter a marriage saying, “Oh, this will end in divorce.”
  • We do not begin a romance, believing, “This relationship will contain domestic abuse.”
  • We do not throw ourselves into a career thinking, “I will file for bankruptcy in five years.”
  • And we certainly do not love someone with the thought that person will die prematurely.

We simply do not embark on a journey, believing the worst is yet to come. No. We begin our journeys with hope. If we are US-Americans, we might believe in the American dream. We may hold implicitly to the belief, “If I live right, life will be good to me.” We may even unconsciously think, “Bad stuff happens . . . but to others.” We simply cannot predict the unpredictable. Our minds are unprepared for tragedy to strike us.

Personally, I believed that God had given me the map. I trusted God, so I trusted the map. I even perceived God as the Creator of my map. If this plan is of God, then how can it go awry? So when my map became unreliable, I became angry with the Creator and angry with me. I had invested my whole person in the Creator’s map. Had God abandoned me? Had I failed God? I thought I had trusted and obeyed, just like the words in the old hymn. But now I was here— in the wilderness with a useless map. Very little of my surroundings were familiar. I experienced shock. Disorientation and depression descended. My emotions were volatile. I felt out of control. Was I going crazy?

To add to my pain, I discovered that most of my supporters, the ones who had been so encouraging, did not venture into the wilderness to find me. They knew I had disappeared in the wilderness, but many did not seek me out. And those who did venture into the wilderness to find me . . . well . . . I did not experience many of them to be very helpful. Of course, it probably did not help that I was quite ashamed about being lost. My shame engendered hiding behind silence and rage.

I recall, however, one who was quite helpful. Shortly after I found myself in unmapped territory, he spoke with me about my new reality. The new normal was still quite fresh, so I was experiencing shock. After listening to my story, his reply became like a signpost amidst my lostness: “It sounds to me like you are experiencing the death of a dream.” His words were like a you-are-here sign: I was still lost, but at least I knew where I was. I had entered the unmapped territory of the death of dream.

Death of a dream.

This death had not been a stopover on my map. It was in the wilderness and had no clear directions out of it. While his words failed to provide a voice of a GPS to guide me, my friend’s words were a significant signpost. I was here, in the unmapped territory of the death of a dream.

I would later learn through another supporter that the length of mourning a death of dream is an average of three to five years. This was like a cursory map that expanded the you-are-here signpost. But since it was cursory, it did not take me out of my wilderness. I would remain lost for an extended period of time.

This experience was a number of years ago now, but it changed me, and it continues to have its impact.

Journeying through unmapped territories changes us. More than once grievers have told me: “Now that (family member) has died, I now get it.” Some individuals have apologized for their earlier failure to be present to others during their grief. Unmapped experiences are capable of opening our eyes to be present to others in ways that we had not been previously, particularly through the power of empathy.

As a Christ-follower, I suspect that the triune Godhead understands this. While I have stated elsewhere that I believe Jesus is God’s embodied expression of empathy, I also see in the Hebrew scriptures where God calls a nation to allow their unmapped experiences to lead to empathy for others. In providing commands to the Israelites on how to live, we read in Exodus 23:9:

You must not oppress a foreigner, since you know the life of a foreigner, for you were foreigners in the land of Egypt.

This is not the only time God instructs the Israelites to draw from their own unmapped experience as a foreigner, so to speak. Similar commands appear in Leviticus (e.g., 19:33-34) and Deuteronomy (e.g., 10:19). In Deuteronomy they are repeatedly told in multiple ways:

Remember that you were slaves in the land of Egypt; therefore, I am commanding you to do all this (e.g., Deut 15:15; 16:12; 24:18, 22).

God continues to remind the Israelites to draw from their unmapped experiences of being slaves in the land of Egypt.

For me, this is empathy. I define empathy as:

both cognitive and affective aspects in that it involves a skill as well as one’s emotions in which a caregiver identifies within herself similar feelings and experiences to the one receiving care but separates her feelings and experiences as being different from the carereceiver’s.

Empathy, then, involves both similar feelings, needs, or experiences and uses them to help identify with the carereceiver while recognizing that my feelings, needs, or experiences are not exactly what the other is experiencing. It is as if someone is drowning, and I am reaching out to help them by standing with one foot on the shore and one foot in the water so that I am simultaneously in the water but not in the water.

In the Israelites’ unmapped experience, they had lost their freedom. Now, since they were liberated from that experience, God is essentially instructing them to empathize with others who are currently foreigners in their midst. For me, this is a description of empathy because I see the presence of both similarities and differences.

  1. They share the similar experience of living in a different culture, being an outsider. The Israelites are being invited to reflect upon their experience in order to feel with those who are having the experience of living as strangers or aliens among them. The notes for Exodus 23:9 in the NET Bible speak of the word “life” as being “soul, life,” and it could be translated, “You know what it feels like.”
  2. They are commanded to feel with those who are different from them. Just by the mere fact that the word “foreigner” is used, it means they are not the same as the Israelites. Of course, sameness is attractive, and maybe God understood this, which is why we see God appealing to their unmapped experience and calling them to empathize. Let’s face it: humans like sameness. It is easy. Differences, however, are another story. They are harder. I think it is a human tendency to fear difference, which can result in wanting to rule over the difference or make it more like us. This means, it takes work to overcome that fear and to empathize. However, differences can produce incredible fruit in that we can be enriched and transformed.

How does this play out for you and me?

Maybe you are presently journeying through an unmapped experience. I may be tempted to say, “We are the same,” but in that moment, I am no longer empathizing but sympathizing. I am being pulled into my experience without considering you and your experience. That is, I begin to drown with you. I am trying to pull you into my experience and make it more like mine.


I can say, “I have experienced loss, but I have not experienced your loss.” I can tap into my experience of loss to help bring limited understanding to what you may be experiencing. Simultaneously, I am recognizing your feelings, needs, and experience of loss are not mine; thus, I am attempting to listen to you and hear what feelings, needs, and experiences you are having inside your loss. Such an effort enables me to feel with you in a limited way while honoring your experience. My unmapped experience, then, becomes my escort to empathy as I join alongside you in your journey in an unmapped territory.

Holy Spirit, today may I participate in what you are doing in the lives of others who are in their own unmapped experiences. May I allow you to use my unmapped experience as my escort to empathy, embracing difference while fostering healing.

[1] I believe that everything we do is to meet a need.

2 thoughts on “The Unmapped Experience: An Escort to Empathy

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s