Anyone who knows me knows that I love learning about all things empathy. My inner hippy believes that unalloyed empathy, when paired with precise and thoughtful communication, can truly change the world. This belief drives much of what I do, including the kinds of nerdy rabbit holes I unapologetically jump down. During one such indulgence, I stumbled upon a fascinating study conducted by Dr. Lasana Harris and Dr. Susan T Fiske (professor of Amy Cuddy, for you TED buffs out there) titled, From Dehumanization and Objectification, to Dehumanization: Neuroimaging Studies on the Building Blocks of Empathy.
In it, they scanned the way the brain’s Medial Prefontal Cortex responded when shown pictures of different groups of people. Psychology Today described its function by explaining, “Basically, this area of the brain…activates when people do things that involve perceiving and relating to other people, such as recognizing and distinguishing between faces and empathizing.”
Their findings revealed that in every situation they presented, the brain’s mPFC was activated, except one. When participants were shown images of homeless people, their scans revealed that they activated the part of the brain that identifies tools and other objects (my understanding is that further studies showed that the only other instances they’ve seen this phenomenon is with drug addicts and when pornography consumers view pornographic images—a discussion for another day). In other words, the mind dehumanizes these individuals and views them as objects instead.
The researchers hypothesized that this was because an individual’s attitude toward another person is largely based upon their perception of that person’s competence and warmth. While I believe this may be a factor, I think there’s something else at play.
That is, the human mind does everything it can to avoid pain and discomfort. By viewing homeless people as equal to them, the empathetic response would be emotionally taxing and even painful. If, on the other hand, we view them as objects, we can avoid the discomfort and dissonance associated with such stark disparity and suffering. Simply put, it’s a defense mechanism.
As a result of this assessment, I determined that I would do everything in my power to lean into that discomfort. I wanted to hurt for people that were hurting. I wanted desperately to rewire my brain and see people for the incredible children of God that they are.
While I can confidently say that I have a long way to go, I have come to recognize something. It is a sacred privilege to suffer with another human being. We all know that hardships are a mortal inevitability, but we rarely allow others into our sacred stadiums of suffering. The amphitheaters wherein we face our greatest challenges and conquer our darkest demons.
I love being invited there. I’m not saying we should share these spaces with just anyone. What I am saying is that there’s something beautiful in letting others in. In our moments of weakness, the ones we’ve granted entrance to can help buoy us up. Many people believe that suffering alone, and in silence, is sign of strength. Perhaps we don’t even consciously make those assumptions, but it is an easy default mode.
After all, it’s terrifying to let people watch us fail. And in the stadium of suffering, we are bound to fail at some point. But this life isn’t meant for us to win in the way the world would have us believe we must win. There is beauty in the struggle. The Savior is in the struggle. He’s the only one that can help us win for good because He’s the only one that has won for good. Don’t let Him, or those who care for and root for you, wait outside while you face the toughest exhibitions life can throw your way.
And as a person who has had the privilege of being in the arena with those I know personally and those known by the Heavenly Parents we share, I can say it’s an exceptional blessing to, “mourn with those that mourn… and comfort those who stand in need of comfort.”
Elder Ronald A. Rasband taught, “Often we are given the opportunity to help others in their time of need. As members of the Church (and might I add, all people who seek to honor their God and their fellow man), we each have the sacred responsibility “to bear one another’s burdens, that they may be light,” and to “lift up the hands which hang down, and strengthen the feeble knees.”
Many people say that being invited into other’s arenas makes our own seem less daunting, and perhaps that’s true. That’s not the point of my message today. I believe wholeheartedly in embracing our circumstances and all the emotions that go with it. In my life, that’s been essential to healing.
But I do think that there’s something profoundly powerful about suffering with others. It helps us learn how to love and feel loved. It helps us come to know God and see God in the world around us. It teaches us how to fight our battles with grace and see the strength of the human spirit. It helps us feel joy more purely.
While it’s entirely natural to avoid pain, I echo the sentiment of President Thomas S. Monson, when he taught, “We are surrounded by those in need of our attention, our encouragement, our support, our comfort, our kindness—be they family members, friends, acquaintances, or strangers. We are the Lord’s hands here upon the earth, with the mandate to serve and to lift His children. He is dependent upon each of us. …”
Our minds may indeed be wired to avoid staring face to face with the suffering of others, but that makes the privilege of suffering with them that much more special. To those who have trusted me enough to let me in, thank you.
To those who understandably turn their faces from pain, I dare you to turn back. I dare you to be there. I dare you to feel the privilege of suffering.
To those who are in the midst of their fight, keep on fighting. Remember that there is always one who is in the stadium of suffering, ready to help us conquer any fight we will ever face. Remember to take hope. Remember that the battle has been won.