By Maria Liu Wong
Empathy is the ability to be aware of the feelings and needs of others. It is seeing and understanding from the point of view of another. It involves not only understanding others, but being able to develop others, to serve them, to leverage diversity, and to be politically aware, as Daniel Goleman suggests in the context of emotional intelligence. Distinct from sympathy — which it is often confused with and involves instead feeling compassion for another — empathy is more personal, and requires stepping into the shoes of another.
This means reading people and listening with care to verbal and nonverbal cues, which, for an Asian American woman raised in an immigrant household, is something that has become second nature. The youngest of two daughters, it was my responsibility to anticipate need — to make the cup of tea for my father when he came home from work, to bring out the slippers when guests arrived, and to refill a drink or adjust the room temperature before someone asked. It was my job to see the need before it was articulated.
This has played out to my advantage and disadvantage as an adult. I see nuances in interactions and body language that others might not notice because this is what I was raised to do. But at the same time, perhaps I don’t question my assumptions when I come across those with different backgrounds and experience than my own. Perhaps I mistake what I think someone needs with what they actually want. This is why trying to understand how to negotiate the paradox of diversity has become critical to the way I think about and cultivate empathy on a personal level and in the context of leadership development. The more we are different, the more potential we have to know each other deeply, yet the more difficult it can be.
I have come to learn the importance of “being” a presence, and to hold back on the “doing.” Whether it is sitting and crying with grieving friends who have lost a baby, or listening to strong, beautiful, accomplished women struggle with their identities, worth and loneliness in the midst of difficult marriage strife or mature singleness, empathy requires something different of me. Anticipating someone’s need doesn’t mean solving, fixing, or brainstorming. It means showing up and holding a sister’s hand. It means being consistent and available, sipping tea together on a park bench or wandering together through the city. It is weeping, praying, singing, laughing, and being quiet with my sisters as we cherish and remind each other what is means to be God’s “beloved.”
Psalm 139:1-6 reminds us, “Yes Lord. You have searched me and known me. You know when I sit down and when I rise up. You have discerned my thoughts from far away. You search out my path and my lying down, and are acquainted with all my ways. Even before a word is on my tongue, O Lord, you know it completely. You hem me in, behind and before, and lay your hand upon me. Such knowledge is too wonderful for me.” We can only begin to step into the shoes of another because God has already done this. Resurrection Sunday reminds us that we are known and cared for completely. It is almost too good and wonderful for us to believe. But it is truth we can hold onto for ourselves and for others.
Maria Liu Wong serves as Dean of City Seminary of New York in Harlem, NYC. She leads a women’s fellowship group and a newcomers’ Beta group with her husband Tony, and volunteers in the children’s ministry at Redeemer Presbyterian Church Downtown. Her research focuses on urban theological education, women and leadership, immigrant youth, diversity, and action research. She lives in the Lower East Side with her husband and three energetic little New Yorkers, and enjoys creating ways to make time and space for students, faculty (and herself!) to learn from and with each other.