Self-love: We need more empathy

by | May 29, 2022

I can’t wrap my head around the latest massacre this past week at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas. Nineteen young children and two adults were lost to yet another school shooting.

The shooter used AR-15-style rifles. This style of weapon is known as a “modern sporting rifle.” This label was created to separate it from the original military M16 version that it was designed after. It’s a popular choice for individuals contemplating shooting large numbers of people. The weapon was easily purchased a couple of weeks earlier, along with enough ammunition to supply a small army of hunters.

Christian tradition tells us that Salvador Ramos is destined for eternal punishment. But what about the persons who manufactured and sold him the killing machines? And what about the legislatures who defend easy access to guns and the lobbyist representing gun manufacturers? Also, what about persons who vote for candidates because they promise pro-gun support?

The honest truth is that we don’t know. So we pray that God shows grace to ourselves and others by overlooking our transgressions and cutting us slack. And I believe that God listens, and I personally count on God’s grace every day.

But grace shouldn’t get us off the hook altogether. So what might motivate us collectively to force action by congress?

It’s been almost three years since Bishop Frank J. Dewane reminded the assembly of Catholic Bishops of their long history of supporting changes to U.S. gun laws. There were approximately 40,000 deaths by firearms during the year that the Bishop gave his address. This number passed 45,000 the following year.

According to a small arms survey, there are approximately 120 firearms per 100 persons living in the U.S. This number is twice the number of firearms found in the country of Yemen — the next highest ownership rate for a country. There is an undeniable correlation between these numbers and gun violence. Yet debates over gun control continue with minimal progress.

The usual strategy used against gun legislation is to deflect attention away from guns toward the personal problems of the shooter. Often by suggesting, but seldom enacting, long-overdue mental health legislation. And while support for good mental health is a great idea, this isn’t a solution by itself since persons with mental illness are no more dangerous than those of us without a diagnosis.

In his address, the Bishop reminded his listeners that “At the heart of this epidemic, there is a shooter. This shooter somehow, in some way, turned inwards on pain, or isolation, or illusions, that it became possible to become desensitized to others, losing all empathy.”

What does it mean to “lose all empathy?”

Miles Howard writing for an NPR affiliate in Boston, notes the occasional emergence of “Proximal empathy.” He writes that this is “the sort (of empathy) that one develops after they or someone close to them experiences something bad.” And an influential person experiencing such an epiphany may be “enough to prevent a one-off disaster, but it’s not nearly enough to sustain a just and peaceful society.”

Most of us feel enough empathy to feel bad after listening to the evening news headlines. But, as a nation, we still fall short when it comes to voting for candidates who actually plan to enact changes that reflect an empathetic populace.

May was declared “mental health awareness month” in 1949 by Mental Health America. Each year providers and supporters of mental health offer numerous activities based on that year’s particular theme. This year’s theme is “Back to Basics?”

Love the Lord your God … and love your neighbor as you love yourself…do this and you will live.
Luke 10:27-28

Next Tuesday is the last day for this year’s push to raise awareness of the importance of good mental health. However, for us, this Sunday is the beginning of Part two of our series Masterpiece. For the next five weeks, we’ll cover part two of Aundi Kolber’s book Try Softer, which emphasizes taking care of our mental health.

This week’s them is mindfulness which I’m calling “self-love” since even though they are not the same thing, being mindful and self-love are closely linked. Aundi reminds us that mindfulness is “a great entry point for treating ourselves with kindness.”

Self-love falls far short of narcissist self-attention. In fact, narcism isn’t so much an indication of loving oneself too much as it indicates a lack of self-love.

Our brains are naturally wired for empathy. The same part of our brain that learns from watching others helps us feel similar emotions felt by a stranger after a tragic accident. This pathway in the brain, called the insula, sends information to our prefrontal cortex. The result may be tears welling up inside as we watch the news coming out of Uvalde.

Mindfulness helps us find a balance between the emotions we feel, whether caused by something happening to us or someone else. In this week’s chapter, Aundi describes an exercise to help ground us as a way to help engage the thinking part of our brain. One suggestion is to look for beauty in the natural world. We’re reminded that “When we hunt for beauty, we learn to pay attention. We keep our eyes open for goodness and for cracks of light.”

Jesus was no stranger to the importance of grounding our thoughts by paying attention to nature. One way Jesus suggested we ground ourselves is bird watching. He said, “Look at the birds: they do not plant seeds, gather a harvest, and put it in barns. And yet,” Jesus added, “God takes care of them!”

But there was a greater truth that this grounding pointed towards. You and I are worth much more than birds. Yet is this simple fact so difficult to believe at times? “That’s because the birds don’t ___.” And we fill in the blanks with whatever shortcoming we believe to be true about ourselves that diminish our value.

Mindfulness focuses on a nonjudgmental assessment of our feelings. Once the thinking part of our brain can focus on the present moment, we can come to an evaluation of what is helpful and what is not so beneficial.

The writer of Luke tells a story about a time when a teacher of the law tried to trap Jesus with a question about eternal life? His question was less about whether someone who shoots a child goes to eternal punishment and more about what actions are needed to get our ticket punched.

Jesus often answered questions by asking a question. So Jesus asked the lawyer, “What do the Scriptures say? How do you interpret them?”

Since the man was an expert in the law, this was a fair question and one that he knew by heart. “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, strength, and mind, and Love your neighbor as you love yourself.”

“You are right,” Jesus replied; “do this, and you will live.”

So what does Jesus mean when He says, “Do this, and you will live?”

Elsewhere, Jesus reminds us that if we stay connected with Him, we’re likely to do the right things and avoid doing the wrong things. Again, Jesus used nature to describe what happens when we stay connected.

Jesus says that “a branch cannot bear fruit by itself; it can do so only if it remains in the vine.” Anyone who pays attention to plants, whether trees, bushes, or grapevines, knows this. Most plants receive water and nutrients through their roots which the branches depend on. Branches that are cut off wither and die.

Jesus concludes his lesson with, “In the same way, you cannot bear fruit unless you remain connected to me.” And so, to live, we stay connected to Jesus, who, in this metaphor, is the vine that keeps us connected to God, our source of life-giving nutrients.

But there are two parts to what is required to live. Love God and love others. And scripture adds a quantifier that our love for others must be as much as we love ourselves. But if we don’t practice self-love, loving others is impossible. Empathy is possible only when we love who we are.

Staying connected to Jesus Christ helps us realize that we are loved for exactly who we are, despite what we do or don’t do. Divine grace comes out of this unconditional love that God has for each of us.

I honestly don’t know what will happen to Salvador Ramos. He was shot and killed by an off-duty border patrol agent who responded to the emergency. Is this punishment enough? What I do know is that he inflicted great harm.

And with all due respect to the politicians who quickly claim that gun legislation wouldn’t have prevented what happened. I believe that the massacre could have been prevented and this belief determines how I cast my vote even when others try to make it more difficult to do so.

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Pastor Tommy

Content for this series is based in part on:

Aundi Kolber. Try Softer: A Fresh Approach to Move Us out of Anxiety, Stress, and Survival Mode–and into a Life of Connection and Joy. Carol Street, IL: Tyndale House Publishers, 2020.

Miles Howard. “America’s Gun Crisis Is A Crisis Of Empathy.” © WBUR, October 04, 2017. Retrieved from: link.

Bishop Frank J. Dewane. “Responses to the Plague of Gun Violence.” © U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, November 11, 2019. Retrieved from: link.

Kim Armstrong.  ‘I Feel Your Pain’: The Neuroscience of Empathy.” © Psychological Science, Dec 29, 2017. Retrieved from: link.

Courtney E. Ackerman. “What is Self-Esteem? A Psychologist Explains..” © Copyright date. Retrieved from: link.

A Community in Love with God, Each Other, and our Neighbors.