The Unmapped Experience: An Escort to Empathy

It was . . . to say the least . . . a difficult experience.

Not one we had been prepared to have . . . after all, who thoroughly plans for these difficulties? And yet . . . such an experience significantly altered us, putting us on a new trajectory. Maybe it was like we were on this journey through a wilderness with a map. We trusted the map. In fact, it was someone we trusted who gave us the map. We had been told, “This is a good map.” We spoke with others who had followed similar maps, and they had informed us of their experiences, which provided us with a few little rules, or maybe axioms, of the journey    . . . you know, like things to do . . . things not do . . . bits of wisdom. In other words, the patterns of their journey informed our journey, generating some expectations.

So with a map in hand and feeling confident with a sense of purpose, we plunged into the wilderness. We were excited. We were tenacious, particularly at first. Granted, the wilderness was not quite how we had envisioned. After all, a map can only give us so much, right? It wasn’t until we were in it that we saw what the map left unsaid. The hills were little more treacherous than we had imagined. The caverns were a little deeper. There were some sizeable boulders that obstructed the path. Some large timbers that had fallen in front of us. This was to be expected, we said to ourselves. So . . . despite the harsh terrain, we still trusted the map because we trusted the one who gave us the map. We remained determined, and we continued . . . we followed the map.

Now, on this journey, we had some ideas of what we would see . . . you know . . . some expectations. We all have them when we take a trip. Others had told us their stories of similar 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.” Thus, there were some things we expected to see along the way. As it would happen, some of those things we just did not have the opportunity to see. At times, the item was just a little too far off course. During other times, our progress on the journey was slower than we had imagined it would be. The terrain was a little more arduous, so we were forced to slow down, hindering our ability to complete all we had planned. Of course, this was a little disheartening. But . . . still . . . we forged ahead.

We had people supporting us, cheering us on. They had expectations for us, too. And well . . . who wants to disappoint others? Don’t forget the one who gave us the map . . . Certainly, he must have had expectations for us. After all, he chose to give us this map. These thoughts pushed us. Besides, many needs were being met through the map. Security. Respect. Approval. Acceptance. Fulfillment. Purpose. Contribution. Guidance. Direction. To matter. Meaning. Identity. Add to those needs the support, the encouragement, and the expectations. They all played a part in our perseverance to remain on this journey.

Then . . . maybe on a day when we least expected it . . . the map disintegrated . . . or for whatever reason, the map was no longer accurate. The journey had not only been disrupted, but it had ceased. Life, as we knew it, would be forever changed. It did not continue according to the map. Amidst all this, we found ourselves unprepared. This was not how we had envisioned our journey through the wilderness with what we had considered to be a reliable map in hand. This was not how it was supposed to be.

Without a map . . . well . . . we were lost. We had entered into unmapped territory.

Unmapped territories.

They can take so many forms. We do not enter a marriage saying, “Oh, this will end in divorce,” or “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 plan that person will die a premature death. It isn’t like we set out for these things to happen, right? Maybe we believed in the American dream. Maybe we held implicitly to the belief, “If I live right, life will be good to me.” Maybe we unconsciously thought, “Bad stuff happens . . . but to others.” We just did not think it would happen to us.

For me, I believed in a God who gave me the map. I trusted God. I trusted the map. And I even saw God as the Creator of my map. Since it’s God, then how can it go awry? But one day . . . the map was gone. I was angry with the Creator and angry with me. Who wouldn’t be? I had invested my whole being in the Creator’s map. Had God abandoned me? Had I failed God? I had obeyed. I had trusted. Now . . . here I was in the wilderness without a map. What kind of deal was that? I was quite disoriented. Very little was familiar, and this infuriated me.

What about my supporters? You know . . . those who were encouraging me on my journey? We all have them. Well . . . I did not experience most of them venturing into the wilderness to find me. They knew I had disappeared in the wilderness, but many did not seek me out. Of course, I was quite ashamed for being so lost. And those who did venture into the wilderness to find me . . . well . . . I did not find many of them to be very helpful.

There was one. He spoke with me right after the map dissolved, but that was when the impact of my new reality had not yet sunk into my being. When he heard the story, he said one of the most helpful things that served as somewhat of a signpost in my lostness. It was sorta like a you-are-here sign: I was still lost, but I knew where I was . . . here. Where was here? The friend said, “It sounds like you are experiencing the death of a dream.”

The death of a dream.

Such a death had not been on my map. This death left me out in the wilderness, not on the other side of it. I was lost.

Okay. I now knew I was here, but this was still unmapped territory for me. Later, another supporter informed me that it takes an average of three to five years to mourn the death of a dream. In some ways, this information provided me with a cursory map beyond the you-are-here signpost. Yet, it was cursory, which meant it did not take me out of my wilderness. I remained lost.

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

I am reminded of how I have heard it said by more than one individual, “Now that so-and-so (family member) has died, I now get it when others lose a loved one.” Some individuals have even apologized for their failure to be present with others during their grief. I can imagine this could be said of many of us about our own unmapped experiences. Journeying into unmapped territories changes us positively, or even negatively. As others besides myself have discovered, these unmapped experiences can open 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 has understood 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 reminded in various 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, then, reminds 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 including,

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, in essence, 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.

OR

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.

 

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