Entries with tag empathy .

Loving Unseemly Characters - Pop Culture Espresso Shots

I’ve long been a fan of Christopher Guest’s mockumentaries. This is Spinal Tap, A Mighty Wind, and Waiting for Guffman are some of the funniest movies I have ever seen. For fans of The Office, Parks and Recreation, or Modern Family, Guest’s movies are probably right up your alley. The other day, I revisited his 2000 release, Best in Show, and I was amazed that I had forgotten just how enjoyable it was.

Guest and his crew tell the stories of a handful of participants in the Mayflower Dog Show in Philadelphia. The characters are very colorful and extremely eccentric. They are so zany and so full of strange quirks, it would be easy to look down on these characters or to treat them as fodder for mockery. But that’s not what Guest and his cast do.

In each of Guest’s movies, he presents a unique set of persons, but he never does so in a way that tears down the characters, but rather, his cast tells the stories of these persons with great compassion. Today, that’s what I’m interested in.

I acted from the time I was a kid all the way through college. Being in plays was always fun, but more than being an enjoyable hobby for me, it was deeply formative on the way I understand relationships with people.

During one play, I was given a role that I hated. It wasn’t like the character was a bad person or anything like that; he was just boring. There didn’t seem to be too much to him. He seemed flat and uninteresting, and I couldn’t wait for the play to be done. After one rehearsal, my director asked me to stick around because he had something to say to me. As everyone was filtering out of the theater, he put his arm around my shoulder and simply said, “You know...You can’t really love him if you’re too busy judging him.”

And I was. I was judging him. I was judging him for being boring.

Guest and his cast are confronted by the stories of people that would be easy to dismiss as bizarre, as somehow over the top. The ensemble could easily tell these stories as slapstick, as caricatures. But they don’t. They listen to the stories of their characters, and they present them tenderly, gently, and with great love.

Art – television, film, music – is great because it allows us a safe space to “try on” different behaviors. It allows us to practice embracing the mysterious. It allows us to practice facing death. And it even allows us to practice loving people we might find to be otherwise bizarre, people with whom we might not readily associate or find “lovable.”

In the last episode of The Trench, I asked a question: what kind of mother has the Church been? And today, I’m wondering something similar.

Have we been a community that makes real room for people, in all their weirdness? Are we a community that tenderly handles persons that we might consider otherwise undesirable?

I think there is a great lesson we as a spiritual community could learn from actors: We can’t really love people, if we’re too busy judging them.

When actors play a role, their work is to tell a story with integrity, to advocate for their character fully and without irony. It is an act of love, and because an actor is that character’s only chance of having her story told truthfully, it is an act that demands the most sincere of attention.

What if we were more like this all the time? What if when people told us their stories, we really attended to them? What if we really listened to others with kind and open ears, rather than with ears that already think they know what the other will say?

I understand how difficult this is. I’ve been surrounded by my fair share of dullards. But we must remember: even the dullard is the icon of Christ.

This is why C.S. Lewis writes, “It is a serious thing to live in a society of possible gods and goddesses, to remember that the dullest and most uninteresting person you can talk to may be one day be a creature which, if you saw it now, you would be strongly tempted to worship, or else a horror and corruption such as you now meet, if at all, only in a nightmare" (Weight of Glory, 45).

We are all possible splendors, and we are all possible nightmares. But if we are going to walk toward the Light of Christ, we have to do it together, and we have to do it in love, and we can’t love each other, if we’re too busy judging each other.

Photo Credit: 

Boys: Depositphotos

Girls: Depositphotos

Christian is a Young Adult Ministries Coordinator for Y2AM. He is a husband, father, mover, shaker, coffee drinker, sandal wearer, and CrossFitter. Christian has his MA from Azusa Pacific University in Marriage and Family Therapy and is working toward a second MA in Children, Youth, and Family Ministry from Luther Seminary. Christian and his family live in Phoenix, Arizona.

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Taylor Swift, Ryan Adams, and the Cross of Christ - Pop Culture Espresso Shots

I know every word to Taylor Swift’s album 1989. It’s sad, but true. My one-year-old daughter hates being in her car seat (a veritable prison for an adept crawler), but for some reason unbeknownst and begrudged by everyone else in our family, 1989 soothes her. Needless to say: we’ve heard a lot of Taylor Swift’s chipper music.

That’s why when I first saw that Ryan Adams had covered 1989, I laughed at the clear irony. Anyone who has heard Adams can understand that his melancholic music hardly shares anything in common with Swift’s upbeat tunes. But when I listened, I realized that underneath her cheery veneer is buried a deeply hurt girl whose life is replete with longing and broken relationships. Adams’ take on 1989 revealed Swift’s music for what it is.

As (bad) luck would have it, when I was writing this, I stumbled across Jamie Smith’s interpretation of this reality here. I will leave the liturgical reflections to him, but my experience with Adams and Swift left me realizing that while I was listening to her, I hadn’t really heard her.

Even though Taylor Swift has been pumping through my car’s speakers for the last 7 months, and while I could sing along with every song, I got lost in the major keys and general feel of her music. So I missed her. I missed the sadness, the heartbreak, the loneliness.

There’s something about hearing Ryan Adams sing “Shake It Off” that makes it finally appear in all its lyrical potency. As he sings, “I’m dancing on my own, I’ll make the moves up as I go, and that’s what they don’t know...that’s what they don’t know…” one can finally see that Swift’s resolve to shake off the haters is more of a pep talk than an embodied reality.

Surely we all know how it is to work up the courage to bounce back after disgrace. It takes lots of self-talk, lots of vulnerability in the face of others who are waiting for another failure. This led me to wonder: if I were Taylor Swift’s friend, would I have caught on to the truth stirring in her heart, striving to rise again? Or would I have bought the lie that she already believed that “it’s gonna be alright?”

Indeed, this causes me to wonder how often my own friends use smiles to stifle the screams welling up inside. While I may hear them saying that everything is okay, am I really listening to hear the deeper truth of their hearts? Perhaps I want their responses to be more in line with Taylor’s 1989 than Adams’.

In the Church, perhaps we run into the same problem. Perhaps we actually even prefer the Taylor Swift version of people’s lives. And perhaps we like this version because it doesn’t demand all that much from us. Listening to Swift, we might think that her pain is a cleaned up product that we can dance to, but Adams demands that we sink into the pit, that we hear the sorrow for what it is. Perhaps we don’t actually want to hear people share the Adams version of their lives.

What would it be like if the people in our communities felt that they could tell the truth of their lives? What would our parishes be like if we actually all heard each other? What if the Church was more like a community of people who could open the sadness? The hurt? The longing?

If we truly believe in a God who draws near to us in the Cross, then we need not be afraid of the darkness that bites at the heels of us all. We can, instead, enter it fearlessly, knowing that it is through the Cross that joy enters the world, bringing Resurrection to all.

So the next time we are tempted to overlook someone's pain by taking "I'm fine" at face value, let’s lower the volume on the Taylor Swift we hear, and try to tune into their inner Ryan Adams. We may be delightfully surprised to find that as we share in one another's loneliness, we suddenly have company inside the pit. As darkness flees from the light, so, too, does loneliness flee from connection with others.

Then, and only then, can we fully appreciate the transformation of the musical tenor of Adams into the upbeat rhythm of Swift, a rhythm we can all dance to, for it is the rhythm of the broken heart that we all share.

 

Christian is a Young Adult Ministries Coordinator for Y2AM. He is a husband, father, mover, shaker, coffee drinker, sandal wearer, and CrossFitter. Christian has his MA from Azusa Pacific University in Marriage and Family Therapy and is working toward a second MA in Children, Youth, and Family Ministry from Luther Seminary. Christian and his family live in Phoenix, Arizona.

Photo Credits:

Sad Girl: Depositphotos

Sad Guy: Depositphotos

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For more:

Check out Ryan Adams' cover of T-Swfit's "Blank Space":

Check out Ryan Adams' cover of T-Swizzle's "Shake It Off":

The Quesadilla Incident

As much as I like to think otherwise, I don’t always know best.   

 

I went through a phase about a year ago where I ate a lot of quesadillas.  Seriously, a lot of quesadillas.  I didn’t see a problem with it but my sisters disagreed (something about how an exclusively cheese- and tortilla-based diet was unsustainable).  Unjustifiably, and completely without reason, my little sisters--who, I should add, are not medical professionals--revoked my quesadilla making privileges.  

 

It was a dark time in our household.  

 

Our opinions of the disagreement were drastically different and neither side would budge.

 

We were at a stand still.  

 

And it’s hard to get anywhere when you’re stubbornly stuck in place.  Unfortunately, we get stuck like this a lot more than we realize.  

 

When we talk about good and evil, like I did last week, we run the risk of forgetting how much our perspective influences the way we interact with the world.  There is an
“us and them” mentality, there is good and there is evil.  Naturally, we are good, they are evil. We are heroes, they are villains.  We want all the quesadillas, they want to rid the world of happiness.

 

Yes, I just used a quesadilla metaphor.  And yes, quesadillas are heroic.

 

I was born white, middle class, and female.  I have seen my share of hardships, and the struggles I have experienced have shaped the way I see the world.  But I was also born into privilege and there are things that I will never be able to relate to.  

 

I’ve never been discriminated against because of my skin color.  I’ve never woken up in a war zone.  I’ve never gone to bed hungry and desperate.  

 

And I thank God for that.

 

But because of this privilege and difference of experience, it’s not easy to empathize with the situations other people face.  On the other hand, it is easy to judge, to condemn, to draw a stark line between the good guys and the bad guys.  And I think you can guess on which side of the line I place myself.

 

So how do we break the stalemate?  We can start with some more empathy.   

 

We live in a divisive world. Every day, the media bombards us with clips of people shouting soundbites at each other rather than discussing topics with each other.  We fall into the habit of consuming media that reinforces, and deepens, our view of right and wrong.  

 

Every day, we fall deeper into the habit of oversimplifying people.  Of misunderstanding people.  

 

Of using our illusion of right to get things very, very wrong.

 

Reading Christian’s blog earlier this week reminded me of my own favorite C.S. Lewis book, Mere Christianity.  It’s a beautiful meditation on faith, and in it Lewis offers us this lovely reminder:

 

“What can you ever really know of other people’s souls—of their temptations, their opportunities, their struggles? One soul in the whole creation you do know: and it is the only one whose fate is placed in your hands.”

 

We like to think that we have all the answers, that our way is the true way.  But the hearts of our neighbors are a deep mystery.  Their pain and trauma is invisible to us.  And our insistence of being right only reinforces our blindness.

 

Like we said last week, our starting place (my starting place, really) needs to be the humble realization that I am what’s wrong with the world [link], not what’s right.  When I better understand my own weakness, I can better understand the strengths of others, and stop seeing them as two-dimensional bad guys.

 

Remember the Great Quesadillas Wars that I mentioned at the beginning?  What I didn’t tell you is that every time I would make a quesadilla I would burn myself.  Every single time (I still have the scars to prove it).  My sisters weren’t being preachy about my bad eating habits, or controlling and power hungry.  

 

They were just looking out for their clumsy big sister.  They were motivated by love.

 

And, for a second, I was too caught up to see it.

 

We found middle ground eventually: I was more careful, and ate fewer quesadillas; in return they backed down a bit, realizing that if they tried to stop every stupid thing I did they’d have a full time job on their hands.  

 

Even in such a simple situation, it was way easier to listen to what my sisters were saying (and get annoyed by it) than understand why they were saying it, and attempt to actually communicate.    

 

It’s even more difficult when the stakes are higher.  Our worry about the state of the world can come from a good place, but it isn’t necessarily an empathetic place.  Even our best intentions can be misdirected by our privilege and judgement.   

 

Our desire to be right can make us very wrong.  And even when others are wrong, it’s right to see them as actual human beings; to see them, not as advocates of a wrongness I must oppose, but bearers of a brokenness I share and attempt to heal.  

 

So I pray for compassion and understanding.  Every day.

 

The problems of the world are troubling, as my quesadilla habit was to my sisters, and I will never understand what compels people to do the things they do.  But that’s the point.

 

I will never fully understand.  But I can try.

 

Just as you won’t always understand the decisions I make.  Though you can try.

 

But keeping that in the back of my mind, and at least trying to remember that we are all people battling our own demons, helps me to be more compassionate in dealing with people.  And I hope it helps me to be more empathetic.  

 

Even if the situation doesn’t involve quesadillas.

 

Charissa is a Young Adult Ministries Coordinator for Y2AM.  Charissa grew up in Salt Lake City, Utah and studied political science at the University of Utah.  She enjoys sunshine, the mountains and snowcones.  Charissa currently lives in New York City.

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For more:

For more on understanding, check out this episode of Be the Bee:

 

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And this awesome video:

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