They Will Never Forget How You Made Them Feel

Kim Noble lives and works in Providence and has been attending First Unitarian regularly for a few years. She appreciates the chance to lead the service today.

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Today we’re going to talk about empathy. Why? Because empathy fuels connection and relationship. Practiced with authenticity and courage, it can be a superpower that heals and leads to progress and positive change. We are also talking about empathy today because it can be so hard to come by. It’s often missing from our public discourse and our everyday lives too. That’s why the quote on the front of today’s order of service is so important to me. Let me explain.

Philosopher and writer Roman Krznaric tells us, “Empathy is the art of stepping imaginatively into the shoes of another person, understanding their feelings and perspectives, and using that understanding to guide your actions”.

Please notice a few things. First, empathy is an act of imagination and creativity. Next, stepping into another’s shoes requires that we search inside our own feelings and experiences and that we avoid judging the other person. And finally, you haven’t completed the empathic cycle until and unless you communicate it back. This is because the neurological and social purpose of empathy is to reinforce our connections and strengthening our bonds. You can’t keep empathy to yourself or let it live just in your head.

Now, about the Maya Angelou quote, here it is: “They will forget what you said, they will forget what you did, but they will never forget how you made them feel.”

I had never heard this quote until it was literally given to me, handwritten on a piece of red construction paper, when I was working at City Year in Providence. As many of you know, City Year serves in Providence public schools, putting teams of committed idealistic young adults in full-time service as role models and mentors for students to help them learn and grow.

City Year has an amazing organizational culture, and empathy is at the heart of that culture. When I received this quote, it was something I needed to hear.

Once it was in my heart, the quote came back to me all the time. Initially it was just a prompt – encouragement to get out of my head and make sure I connected with the person in front of me. Chewing on it for a while, I came to see Maya Angelou’s words as a challenge to find greater connection in all my relationships.

From the reading I did to prepare for today, I learned that, a) in evolutionary terms, we’re all wired for empathy, and  b) while some of us are naturally more gifted than others, everyone can learn these skills and use them to enrich their relationships.

We can all build our capacity and skill for making connections. And if we keep in mind that our impact in many situations boils down to how we made the other person feel, that notion can help us to step into the shoes of another.

To go a bit deeper into how this can work, I’d like us to read together the poem in today’s order of service. The poem is “Listen,” by Naomi Shihab Nye. She’s an amazing poet, and we’ve heard from her before in our Sunday services. As we read the poem together, I’d like to ask you to use your empathic imagination to understand the characters in the four little stories.

Dear Abby, said someone from Oregon,
I am having trouble with my boyfriend’s attachment
to an ancient gallon of milk still full
in his refrigerator. I told him it’s me or the milk,
is this unreasonable? 

The speaker asks Dear Abby for a ruling on whether it’s reasonable to end a relationship over a gallon of spoiled milk that just can’t seem to be thrown away. Imagine the pain of feeling ignored to such a degree? Imagine not being seen by someone whom you are just beginning to build a life with.

Or maybe, the circumstances are different here. Imagine needing to end a relationship because a habit or behavior overwhelms and chokes out all the love that was supposed to create a home filled with joy and understanding.

Who are you in this story?  I know I have been each person. I’ve even been Dear Abby. It’s easier to be Dear Abby. In my experience, it’s much harder to hold onto both your empathy and your sense of self as one half of a couple, and it’s so easy to take your partner for granted.

Dear Carolyn,
my brother won’t speak to me
because fifty years ago I whispered
a monkey would kidnap him in the night
to take him back to his true family
but he should have known it was a joke
when it didn’t happen, don’t you think?

This speaker shows us, at best, an example of the great 21st-century sin of cluelessness and, at worst, the corrosive effect of bullying.

My imagination takes me to a little brother who has built a wall that has lasted 50 years. It started as a defensive protection from bullying that seemed to be a real, existential threat and is now the foundation for a dysfunctional family relationship that will lead nowhere good, unless perhaps, the older sister is able to wake up and recognize how she made her brother feel, ask for his forgiveness, and be prepared to be held to account. Unless the veil of her cluelessness is lifted, she’ll always wonder why they aren’t close.

Dear Board of Education, no one will ever
remember a test. Repeat. Stories,
poems, projects, experiments,
mischief, yes, but never a test.

Good teachers know that kids learn, grow, and take risks when they make connections. And they know that learning is not about a test. I want us to imagine the courage it took for this teacher to challenge the Board of Education. Her plea — Hey! Don’t reduce my students to one data point when they are so much more and deserve so much more from us!

Dear Dog Behind the Fence, you really need
to calm down now. You have been barking every time
I walk to the compost for two years
and I have not robbed your house. Relax.
When I asked the man on the other side
if you bother him too, he smiled and said no,
he makes me feel less alone. Should I be more
worried about the dog or the man?

And finally, what is our empathetic approach to the barking dog, so filled with fear or bad training that every movement makes him anxious? And what to make of the man for whom the constant noise is a sign that he’s not alone?

For me, it’s hardest to consider or imagine the feelings or backstory of someone who I don’t understand. But it is when we meet people different from us that we need to tap our curiosity and imagination the most.

If we ever want the dog to calm down, we need to be patient, curious, and find a connection with him that he’ll respond to and understand.

Likewise, I think we’re called to find a way to connect with the guy who is so lonely that he feels the barking dog to be a comfort.

There’s no question but that this is what we are called to do. But who manages to really do it? Who slows down to take that time and make a connection? It’s hard, but for me still too often, just an aspiration.

We’ve just taken a few minutes to practice the kind of creative and imaginative perspective-taking that is the starting point for an empathetic response. Let me recommend Maya Angelou’s words as a kind of North Star in the very confusing and wearying snippets of life that can challenge our empathy and seem so hard.

Consider this: throwing away a gallon of milk, making amends for bullying a child, actually using empathy to make sure schools value and understand how students truly learn, and training the dog are all things that would improve the world – helping everyone in the poem to thrive!

Every day each of us has the chance to show up in this way for someone we encounter. In UU terms, cultivating greater empathy is one way to express our belief in the inherent worth and dignity of every person. They will never forget how you make them feel.

More on empathy

Roman Krznaric wrote Empathy, Why It Matters and How to Get it. He has been studying empathy and writing about it for many years. He maintains The Empathy Library an amazing website dedicated to deepening empathy and to fueling an empathy revolution.

Brene Brown–A favorite animated short about empathy is this one. The animation is very cute, and it really enhances Brene Brown’s warm hearted, no-nonsense explainer of empathy and how it differs from sympathy.

Brene Brown called out nursing scholar Theresa Wiseman whose research documents how caregiving with empathy improves patient outcomes. I liked her paper “Toward a Holistic Conceptualization of Empathy for Nursing Practice” — a pdf of it can be found here.

Mama’s Last Hug by Franz de Waal is one of the most interesting books I read about empathy. He is an evolutionary biologist who has worked with primates for most of his career. In this book he makes the case “that emotions are everywhere in the animal kingdom.” The title comes from this short video that documents the last meeting of two old friends. It has more than 10 million views.