Compassionate Attunement
Psalm 138:8,15,16; Mk. 3:1-6

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The Gospel of Mark was written about 1800 years before the invention of psychology, so we don’t get the window into the psyche of Jesus like we would if a piece was written about him today. But it is fairly clear that Jesus had an extraordinary empathy with people. So many of the stories that are remembered about him, he goes out of his way to welcome someone who was hated at the time like a tax collector named Zaccheus. He is not afraid to go near to lepers that were shunned- the Ebola patients of the 1st century. He spends time with the women of the household, like Martha and Mary, and he speaks openly with prostitutes in front of other religious types that thought prostitutes should just be condemned. And there are so many stories like this one today that Jesus just healed people.
What is interesting is not the miraculous healing itself, though you may not know this. The gospel of Mark was written by a Roman for Romans. Healing was how Romans demanded authenticity among their religious leaders. So when you read the Roman historians that write about Jesus, they always mention that he was known widely as a great healer. Roman religious stories were mostly told with this dimension of miraculous healing.
But Roman healing stories don’t always have a moral with them. The stories of healing with Jesus always do. And the moral is one of humane compassion. The religious and political leaders that saw Jesus as a threat are depicted as waiting for him to make a mistake so they could trump up charges against him. In this case, he is healing a man on the Sabbath and the Torah says you should do no work on the Sabbath.
But Jesus is remembered as a prophet that was not afraid to stretch the boundaries of religious more in order to express humane compassion for those in need. Jesus says, “is it lawful to do good on the Sabbath?” even if it involves some work, on the day of the week you are supposed to rest?
In other words, is it okay to be humane? That is different from other Roman miracle stories. They were about mysterious power but not necessarily connected to an ethic of compassion.
If we wrote the stories about Jesus today, we would depict him as a man that was extraordinarily attuned to other people. He just seemed to get other people. More than that, they felt heard. They felt included and empowered. They felt healed.
Today, we have quite a developed literature that being attuned to other people is really the goal of our development. It gives our lives spiritual depth and fulfillment. And there is no short cut for developing it either.
Part of the early research came at the issue negatively. We started studying criminals, violent criminals in particular: those who engaged in rape, torture, child sexual abuse and the like. We wanted to find out what makes them different and how they were different.
Not surprisingly, what we found was that they actually have a diminished capacity for empathy with other people. One of the reasons that they were able to engage in cruelty is that they are missing a piece that normal people have.
Also, not completely surprising, they were much more likely to suffer from attachment disorders. They were much more likely to have suffered from neglect as infants and toddlers, either having no mother or having been ignored because of something like drug addicted parents. Others had some sort of damage to a common region of the brain that manifested the same range of symptoms.
Because it is really quite amazing to watch just how empathetic we humans are from infancy onwards. “The moment Hope, just nine months old, saw another baby fall, tears welled up in her own eyes and she crawled off to be comforted by her mother, as though it were she who had been hurt. And 15 month old Michael went to get his own teddy bear for his crying friend Paul; when Paul kept crying, Michael retrieved Paul’s security blanket for him.” As far as we can tell, infants internalize the distress of others around them, as early as a few months and they will cry when others are distressed as though this pain was their own. By the time, they are a year, they are aware that the cry of other people is not their own, so they register confusion when they hear other people cry because they don’t know what to do about it. They feel like they should respond to it as though it were their own.
By the time toddlers are 2 ½, almost all children will approach someone who is in distress. Sometimes they will start crying themselves. They will stroke their hair, pat their shoulders or hug them, trying method after method of empathy to relieve the distress of their neighbors. When you think about it, we have a rather pronounced ability in this regard.
What we’ve documented is that toddlers are demonstrably affected by their interaction with their parents. It turns out that mimicry is very important. We can actually develop the capacity of empathy in our youngest children by observing their interactions and helping them name their feelings.
In ye olden days, when I banged my brother over the head for trying to play with my truck when I was four and he was two, my grandmother would grab me up by the arm and say, “Charles you are a naughty boy”. That might have made her feel like she had righted the moral compass but it was not nearly as effective as today when our Mother’s say, “Charles you were frustrated and you hit your brother with your wooden hammer on the head. Look how sad you made him.” We name the child’s emotions and we call attention to the emotional state of the other children, so that the child can pay attention to the emotional distress.
This interaction between parent and child, between child and child- it isn’t simply that the children are copying what we are doing, they are actually growing in their capacity for empathy. So psychologists call this capacity attunement. It is when you interiorize how others around you are feeling in a given social situation and you figure out how to get along, how to synchronize with others- as we Christians would say, how to be a reconciling presence and make things work.
Professor Martin Hoffman has studied the relationship between empathy and moral development and spent his career documenting that being able to put yourself in other people’s shoes is critical for developing a sense of justice that motivates you.
He was quite taken for example, at the way children are capable of developing a sophisticated emotional attunement. Already my granddaughters, aged 8, can distinguish between a cry from pain and a cry from embarrassment, like someone wetting their pants. If it is pain, they will quickly hover around their cousins and hug them up or distract them with a toy. But, they won’t draw attention to someone crying from embarrassment because they know it will only make things worse.
It is also interesting that around the age of 8-10 children can start to understand that certain people have to live with chronic distress, say because they are poor or because they are old and confined to a wheel chair. What Professor Hoffman was able to demonstrate is that the better children could identify with the distress that other people had to endure, the more likely they were to develop a sense of compassionate justice that wanted to make the world a place that could relieve some of that suffering. The more likely they were to grow up thinking that we have a social obligation to eradicate poverty and help the least of these, as Jesus taught us in that mature spiritual vision, that we have a social obligation to make our world inclusive of people with disabilities so that they aren’t segregated off where we don’t see them and they can’t have the fulfillment of broad human contact.
At the other end of the spectrum from compassionate attunement, you have its opposite or its deficit. That is not simply indifference or a lack of caring but intimidation that attempts to control others through fear. That is the way of domestic violence. That is the macabre inversion of families that happens in gangs. That is the strange deformation of loyalty that happens with terrorist groups like ISIS or Boko Haram.
Today researchers have been able to document what Christians have been teaching as axiomatic for centuries that our moral development can be taught, that in fact that most profound personal transformation takes place when we model for our children an integrated way of being.
We actually can and do make a huge difference by being simple, positive examples in the way that we live. Professor John Cacioppo has used micro sensors to demonstrate how deeply we affect one another. He has shown that if you smile, for example, people around you are quite likely to smile back if someone is smiling at you, even if it is so subtle that it is not detectable to the eye alone.
From that he was able to determine that our ability to be emotionally in sync with one another is a key factor in our ability to be interpersonally effective. If you are adept at attuning to other people’s moods, or you can easily bring others under the sway of your own, your interactions will go more smoothly at the emotional level. Conversely, people that are poor at receiving and sending emotions are prone to problems in their relationships.
The really good news is that we can move the needle in a positive direction. Our ability to shape the moment morally and spiritually can be significant. Professor Daniel Goleman at Harvard uses a dramatic example from the Vietnam war to make a more subtle point.
An American platoon was hunkered down in a rice paddy when they came under intense fire from the Vietcong. The battle was raging and right in the middle of it, a group of Buddhist monks came walking over a berm that separated the Americans from the Vietcong. They were walking right into the middle of the conflict. Unarmed, unfazed by the gunfire, they walked calmly, almost serenely, six of them. Spontaneously, the soldiers stopped shooting on both sides. They interviewed one of the Americans and he said, “It was really strange, because nobody shot at them. And after they walked over the berm, suddenly all the fight was out of me. I just didn’t feel like I wanted to do this anymore, at least not that day. It must have been that way for everybody, because everybody quit. We just stopped fighting.”
Were that it were so direct to end all conflicts. But the point is this. We possess an enormous power to make a moral and spiritual difference, even in polarized conflicts. We humans find emotions contagious. And your positive aura, when you let the Spirit of God guide you in the higher way that you are capable of being, you can change the social calculus around you. Especially, if we can pay attention to the myriad of ordinary small things that we can control.
Kate and I have been growing into this as grandparents. When we started looking for places to retire to, both of us realized that this next generation is more plugged in and structured timewise than any generation in American history. So we ended up getting a place that is more rural than suburban. And Nana declared that when we were out there as family, there would be no television and no hand held devices.
Instead, we spend our time actually running outside, searching the creek for frogs, salamanders, and interesting butterflies, jumping in piles of leaves, and building bonfires at night.
When we put the grandchildren to bed at night, Kate would tell them a couple of very long stories. She is a nursery school teacher and a pro. But she asks them what they want to hear about, what kind of characters they want to be in the story- (My grandsons list several animals that must make an appearance)- and then she takes whatever story she had in mind and adapts it to make it interesting and remarkably close with a nice moral point.
Then she turned to me and said, “You’re on… sing them to sleep from the hallway.” Who me? So I started singing the only thing I could think of in a pinch, hymns. It is funny in moments like that, I sat there singing, imagining what my grandmother would have sung to me and it would have been mostly hymns.
But thank God for the internet and my phone because now I’ve added a few other tunes with the lyrics downloaded. But what would you sing? What does the rising generation need to know and remember? What will make them better. I added Louis Armstrong, What a Wonderful World. I added “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” from the Wizard of Oz. And then I stumbled on a closer from Mark Miller that goes, “God, who began a good work in you… will be faithful to complete it”… That is what they need to fall asleep hearing.
And fall asleep they do. And we eat meals together as a family, simple enough, but I read that fewer and fewer families are able to do it and we now know that eating together and sharing conversation is critical in all these little ways for developing attunmenent.
And we say a family prayer and everyone holds hands. It is the same prayer, but it is our prayer. It is about being together and you know what, it will be very important years from now when we say it together and one of us is in danger or one of us is missing significantly.
You come with a built in authority as grandparents. I’ve started one simple tradition. I take them out two at a time to the Summit Diner for breakfast. They absolutely love it. My two year old granddaughters got so excited drinking their chocolate milk for breakfast, they were too full to eat a pancake. Milk was plenty.
We twirl around on the stools and hold hands crossing the streets. Already, I can tell that years from now, if I really need to talk to them about something important, it is a pretty good bet that I’ll call them up and say “Why don’t we go get breakfast at the Summit Diner”.
All these simple, but profound ways that we lay down some good track together. It is not likely that what our children and our grandchildren need is another structured sports practice or another technological way to divert their attention for their personal amusement.
No, what they need are ways that they can practice and develop their spiritual and emotional attunement with each other. I hope for you an awareness of the wonderful role that you get to play positively forming those around you. I hope for you the spiritual creativity and confidence to step out and create your own traditions to shape your family and loved ones in positive ways. I hope for you the blessing of growing as you heal those around you. Amen.