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Entries in empathy (2)


The Green Mile: what John Coffey knew about empathy

Being in the same room is not the same thing as connecting.  Remember that holiday office party where everyone chatted non-stop but you left feeling more alone?  Or the well-meaning friend who freely quotes Scriptural promises with the non-committal detachment of a fortune cookie, but doesn't really get what you're going through?  Speaking is not the same thing as connecting.  Even listening isn't the same.  

We need others who are emotionally in-sync with us.  Jesus surprises us here:

 ...he was deeply moved in spirit and troubled."  - John 11: 33, 38 [Lazarus story]

Would you be emotionally gutted if you knew you'd get back what you lost; that day?  In the Lazarus story, Jesus' emotional response doesn't really fit what he secretly knows. He has inside information that Lazarus is really just "sleeping" but he's not acting like the superhero.  He's not grinning like a giddy parent who knows the new birthday bike is waiting in the garage.   Why does God still cry when he knows everything works for good?

There are the typical interpretations explaining why Jesus was emotionally distraught, despite being the bearer of good news:  Jesus was indignant at his friends' unbelief; or he was overcome with grief by the entrance of death and decay into his Father's world. 

Yet, author Carol A. Brown, in her book, The Mystery of Spiritual Sensitivity, has another explanation:  Jesus was deeply moved in spirit and was troubled because he was dialed into his friends' emotional reality; and despite knowing that all would be okay, was still able to feel what they felt.  He remained emotionally in-sync with his friends.

He came alongside His friends and drew some of their burden into His spirit and soul, thus lightening their emotional load.  He felt what the sisters and friends were feeling - He was fully in sync with them."1

Note:  Jesus does not frantically rush to move people from difficult emotions to positive ones.   To do so would dishonor them.  He's okay staying in-sync with painful emotions like grief, terror, and anger; he won't rush to extinguish the pain without first feeling the pain himself. Why?  Because Jesus knows that people won't walk with you into the light until you've stayed with them in the dark.  


The Green Mile:  what John Coffey knew about empathy

Image: courtesy, IMDB

If you've ever seen the movie The Green Mile, you know that a falsely accused empath named, "John Coffey," literally inhales the pain of those who are suffering around him.  As he breaths in their affliction, the lights in his prison cell surge brightly with supernatural electricity as John Coffey swallows the misery of suffering souls.  He carries what they can't.  And it costs him, as it does all those who have extraordinary empathy.   

Psychologists call this kind of emotional engagement, "attunement."  It's the ability to dial-in to another's emotional states, to quite literally feel what they feel, to get in-sync with them.  It's how we, "Bear one another's burdens."  (Galations 6:2)


Ways to get in-sync with those you love

It starts simply by asking ourselves, "What must this person be feeling?  What is their body posture telling me: Are they slumped over?  Tense and rigid? What emotions are showing up on their face and in their tone of voice?  Wide-eyed with fright?  Do they have that far-away stare that says, "The feelings are so overwhelming that I can't feel them myself"?

Finally:  If you haven't had a chance to watch The Green Mile, it's one of the best portrayals of the Gospel in film.   



1.  The Mystery of Spiritual Sensitivity, by Carol A. Brown; p. 23


The Perceptive Heart: Reading people's faces

Image courtesy, virtual-lecture-hall.com

A perceptive person can read your face.  [Note:  Though I'm writing to adults, I've used pictures of infants' faces because their expressions can't be faked; rather than those pictures using actors who are trying to mimic emotional expressions.]

Viewing without seeing
His face bore the rigid gaze of a department store manikin. Eyes open, but not registering. This person across the table from me had been looking at me for an hour as we talked; but I realized that he couldn't see me. There was nothing wrong with his eyes and nothing blocking his view.  Yet I felt no more understood than if I was sitting across from a crash-test dummie.

The reason I knew this was because his facial expressions never changed to match mine. There was almost no emotional connection between us because his face didn't mirror my face. There was no reflection of my pain registering in his eyes.  No sense that he felt what I felt.  Though I had spent an hour with this person, I felt no closer to him.

Reading another's face well makes them feel connected and safe.
Decoding another's facial expressions is a critical step in connecting more deeply with them:

[Research] explained why knowing that we are seen and heard by the important people in our lives can make us feel calm and safe, and why being ignored or dismissed can precipitate rage reactions or mental collapse.  It helped us understand why focused attunement with another person can shift us out of disorganized or fearful states.  - The Body Keeps the Score, Dr. Besselvan der Kolk, M.D.


The face cannot lie. The muscles in the face respond reflexively, automatically to our internal emotional states; especially facial gestures called "micro-expressions:"

A microexpression is a brief, involuntary facial expression that is shown on the face of humans according to the emotions that are being experienced. Unlike regular pro-longed facial expressions, it is difficult to fake a microexpression.  1  


Our faces hold the clues to our crime scenes.  Dr. Dan Allender, respected Christian psychologist and author, says that each of us is a crime scene. Harm was done to us. It is embedded in our memories and stored in our bodies. So as we "investigate" the harm done to those we care about, we do so knowing that we are walking into a crime scene. Therefore, we walk into each other's stories with humility and honor.

What will their faces tell us? 

  • Are their eyes widened with fear?

  • Is the curve of their mouth downturned in sadness and loss?

  • Does their brow say, "I'm really angry; but need you to know that underneath the anger is a fear you'll abandon me, too."

  • Does their face say, "I'm struggling with trust right now?"

Responding to their face:

Once you've deciphered a person's facial expression to know what their emotional state likely is, you can serve as a mirror to their soul.  "When the message we receive from another person is 'You're safe with me,' we relax. If we're lucky in our relationships, we also feel nourished, supported, and restored as we look into the face and eyes of the other."2  

Connecting with the person across from you can be as simple as, 

I noticed you look really frightened.  If you feel safe, can you tell me more?

It looks like you feel angry right  now.  Is there something that has hurt you?  Is it possible you're not feeling safe right now?

You seem joyful today.  How can I celebrate with you?

Note:  Hold your assumptions lightly and ask the Spirit to lead. Remember, you could be walking into a crime scene; and that will require discernment. 


Final thought?  Is it possible that Jesus is really good at reading your face, mirroring your emotions, and offering you a kind response that says, "I get you."?




1.    "Guide to Reading Microexpressions," Vanessa van Edwards, author and behavioral investigator  

2.   The Body Keeps the Score, Dr. Bessel van der Kolk, M.D.