Tycho Brahe lay dying. “Let me not seem to have lived in vain,” he said. “Let me not seem to have lived in vain,” he repeated to Johannes Kepler. The greatest astronomer of his time, he had records of countless observations of the heavenly bodies. But he did not have the mathematical skills to explain the movement of the planets. Jealous of his achievements, he had refused to give Kepler full access to his records. But as he lay dying, he realized that his achievement would only be realized by allowing Kepler to use his skill on the records. He was correct. We still use Kepler’s laws of planetary motion.
Every one of us knows what Brahe meant. In a sinful world, humans have many fears. But perhaps the greatest fear is that our life lacks meaning, that we personally have not contributed anything significant. We all want not to have lived in vain, to have made a difference.
Empathy, the bridge between “us” and “them,” must recognize this fundamental truth. Each human being needs to know that he or she has worth. So empathy begins with the recognition that you are precious. By precious I mean of infinite value. This is easier for the Christian than for some others, because the sacrifice of Christ makes it clear the value God places upon us.
The Lord God of heaven collected all the riches of the universe,and laid them down in order to purchase the pearl of lost humanity. The Father gave all His divine resources into the hands of Christ in order that the richest blessings of heaven might be poured out upon a fallen race. God could not express greater love than He has expressed in giving the Son of His bosom to this world. This gift was given to man to convince him that God had left nothing undone that He could do, that there is nothing held in reserve, but that all heaven has been poured out in one vast gift.
~Our High Calling
But even Christians do not often realize this fully. One of the reasons that legalism is so strong among us, is that we feel we must do something in order to become worthy. And for those who do not believe in Christ, personal worth can be a very difficult concept.
But if we do have empathy, empathy for the atheist, empathy for the Muslim, empathy for our enemies — if we are to have any hope of communicating with them, we must understand them, and if we are to have any hope of understanding them, we must begin with these bedrock human needs. Everyone needs to feel they have value; that they are precious.
In an ideal world, we would all realize this. But we do not live in that world. We live in a world filled with sin, disease, hatred, anger, shortages — the very things that make us and others feel we lack worth. And it is important to remember that precious means of infinite value. Because if we are worth less, eventually we feel worthless.
If I do not hold you as being precious, of being of infinite value, then there is something or some combination of things which might have the same value as you do. In which case, it would be reasonable to trade you and your existence for those other things. But the recognition and the insistence that each individual is of infinite value is not only central to the Christian message, it is central to our hope of establishing empathy, of understanding the other person’s point of view.
Now, it is important to recognize, that although each of us is individually precious, this does not apply to each and every action we take. Some of the actions we take are far from precious, they damage and express devaluation of others. Notice, they “express devaluation,” but they cannot in fact change the value of the other person. They can only change our viewpoint, and make empathy more difficult for both.
As I mentioned in the first blog, I’m using empathy to indicate understanding the other person’s point of view, not necessarily sympathizing with. I may not agree with it. But I must understand it first.
One of the first ways to use this understanding of the infinite value of the other person, and the need for each person to feel infinite value, is to examine racial prejudice. At its base, racial prejudice is not about “the other,” it is about my feelings of lack of worth. The individual who holds racial prejudice, even though they will claim to be and believe themselves to be superior, that cannot in fact be true. As CS Lewis once said, “no one says ‘I am as good as you are,’ and means it.” The same is true of saying, “I am better than you,” or “you are inferior to me.” If I really believed that, there would be no need to say it.
Oh yes, there are those who hold prejudice in their hearts without proclaiming it. They simply act as if they are superior to the other person. But this is literally a fatal conceit. As John Donne told us, “no man is an island.” We cannot devalue another without devaluing ourselves. And we would have no need to devalue another if we recognized that we are indeed precious.
Once we realize that we are of infinite value, that God values us so highly, we can afford to be generous. Not just generous with resources, but generous in spirit. This generosity of spirit will go a long ways to bridging the gap between “us” and “them.” It cannot go the whole way, but neither can we bridge the gap without it.
It follows then, that we must recognize our own infinite value in God’s sight so that we may experience this generosity of spirit from God, and then share it with others. This is not easy, not in this sinful world.
We are surrounded by messages which tell us, either directly or indirectly, that our value is not good enough. Whole books have been written about that. As it turns out, bridging the gap between “us” and “them,” involves the same process, the same sensibilities, the same understanding that is required to bridge the gap between my perceived lack of value and God’s valuation of me.
What I’m saying is that there is the same gap within us. And as we learn to bridge the gap within us, we will also learn to bridge the gap between ourselves and the rest of the alienated world.