In Harper Lee’s classic novel, To Kill A Mockingbird, Atticus Finch continually tries to instill in his children, Scout and Jem, a sense of empathy by putting themselves in another’s shoes. The concept of empathy is hard for them to grasp. For instance, the children view mean Mrs. Dubose as an abusive old woman who yells at them every time they walk by her house, but Atticus reveals to them that Mrs. Dubose is at heart a warrior, battling morphine addiction with every ounce of energy she possesses.

He wants them to see that this battle she fights is very difficult and so they should not judge her. At one point, Atticus explains to Scout, “If you can learn a simple trick, Scout, you’ll get along a lot better with all kinds of folks. You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view . . . until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.”

Wearing Our Neighbor’s Shoes

Wearing someone else’s shoes, walking around in their skin, even borrowing a different lens are all metaphors for the same thing: learning to view circumstances or events from a new perspective. One of the ways in which we can view circumstances or events in a new way is by developing empathy. We can discuss this best by reviewing Christ’s parable of the good Samaritan (Luke 10:29-37). In response to the lawyer’s question, “Who is my neighbor?” Christ told the parable of the good Samaritan. A man was robbed, stripped naked, beaten, and left for dead on the road to Jericho. Both a priest and a Levite saw the man and walked by on the other side of the road. Finally, a Samaritan stops and helps, going out of his way to save the man’s life.

What is the difference between the three men: the priest, the Levite, and the Samaritan? They were all men of seemingly good moral codes. Why did the first two men fail to act? One can speculate that they saw the need of the man and perhaps they thought, when I am done with what I need to accomplish today, when I check off all the boxes of my “to-do” list, then I will come back. Perhaps they thought that their job was to keep holy and pure and not contaminate themselves with a task that might seem “unclean” because of their duties as a priest and a worker in the temple. Perhaps they patted themselves on the back that they had kept themselves untangled from an unsavory experience. We will never know their thoughts or intentions, only their roles and their actions.

The Compassion of the Good Samaritan

We don’t know the occupation of the Samaritan, but we do know that Samaritans were despised by the Jews. For his entire life, the Samaritan man may have grown up knowing that others considered him inferior. Christ emphasizes that the Samaritan was motivated by “compassion” (Luke 10:33). Perhaps the Samaritan had learned compassion through his own experience of being mistreated. He must have known something of what that man half-dead on the side of the road was feeling. While the priest and the Levite focused on something, anything else, the Samaritan looked with lenses refined by his own painful experiences. We call such regard for another’s feelings empathy.

Empathy and Counseling

Empathy has been a key factor in my own professional journey as a marriage and family therapist intern. Within the context of empathy, my experiences as a human being have made me a better counselor. I feel empathy for those suffering from mental illness, the death of a loved one, enslaving addictions and other painful losses, because I myself have experienced these things. While I can’t share one’s pain, I can understand and help. I would like to share four ways in which we can enhance our ability to feel and convey empathy, especially when, like Atticus, Scout, and Jem we see someone in our midst who is fighting addiction.

In counseling, I try to be like Atticus Finch. One cannot adequately help a client unless one has a good understanding of how that client feels. We practice by identifying feelings, asking if our sense of their emotion is correct, and listening to the underlying reason for that feeling. There is nothing quite like being understood by another person. Feeling understood is the first step in establishing a relationship of trust. If one focuses prematurely on identifying and solving a client’s problem without first understanding who the client is and what they are feeling, we are bound to fail. Clients, even those with profound addiction problems, have a remarkable ability to find the motivation to solve their own problems once they feel truly understood.

Seeing More Clearly through the Lens of Empathy

One of the most empathetic people to live in our lifetime is Mother Teresa, a Catholic nun who worked with impoverished Indian orphans. She has said, “Being unwanted, unloved, uncared for, forgotten by everybody, I think that is a much greater hunger, a much greater poverty than the person who has nothing to eat.” People are hungry for compassion, for understanding, for caring. There is much more to professional therapy than expressing empathy. But without empathy, you won’t get very far as a therapist. So as therapists, we borrow our client’s lenses to see their struggles. Then we lend them our lens to see beyond the dead-end or pit they see themselves in. Our lens is the lens of hope and resolution.

Once we see clearly where someone is, empathy is developed further by reaching out to help another. This is exemplified by the Samaritan. He didn’t simply sit next to the beaten man and say, “I too know what it is like to feel broken.” He did something about the other person’s brokenness. And who among us are the broken and beaten that we walk by?

Developing Empathy for those Suffering with Addiction

For many, it is those who suffer silently with addiction, either their own or that of a loved one. Through empathy we will know exactly what the other person needs, especially those who struggle with addiction: a friend to call when the temptation to use grows to be too much, someone to attend an AA meeting with, or a pastor to confess to. It might be simply a smile or kind word. Or, it might be information about needed resources. Other times, it might involve boundaries to not enable addictive behaviors.

Lastly, when we struggle with knowing how best to help, empathy is enhanced through a prayer to understand another’s feelings and how best to help. God knows all that is happening with the person we are seeking to help. We can ask Him to help us hear that person’s heart and guide our work together.

Lutheran Family Service counselor, Lindy Hinckley, tLMFT, serves individuals, couples, and families in person in Deadwood, South Dakota, and throughout the state via telehealth.

If you or someone you know is in need of Christ-centered mental health or marriage counseling, refer to or contact us today to schedule an appointment.

Lutheran Family Service walks with those experiencing difficult times through mental health counseling, marriage counseling, crisis pregnancy counseling, and adoption services.


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