True empathy creates strength in a way that moral outrage and pity cannot, according to Joan Halifax on TED. Strength grown out of the connections formed through empathy is the strength to be present in the suffering of others, to know we are connected with others, and still stand strong “with softness in the moment.” Joan also says, “We cannot be attached to outcome” which sheds a lot of light on my situation in ministry. There are precious few measurable goals when it comes to influencing a young person’s life, especially since I will only be here for a grand total of six months, so I cannot be attached to any outcome of my ministry at Mercy High; all I can be is present and a presence in the lives of my students and co-workers. Yet, I cannot be present to the needs of my students if I am planning how their futures could be, or even what class time could be. As much as I would like to shake some of my kids awake I cannot they must, to a great extent, do that for themselves. If I am thinking and dreaming for them then I am not present to them in their current circumstances, and I so very much need to be present with them! Presence and empathy with those I minister to is of crucial importance since, to paraphrase Lilla Watson, my future and liberation is bound up with these kids in a way which remains ineffable to me because even as I know this connection to be true and influential I also know that come April I will move on in my journey and most likely never see or hear from them again. My connection with my students is changing me in quiet and subtle ways, and I have learned so much from this experience.
At Mercy High I’ve seen that I can become more present to those around me by simply knowing and living into the reality that being empathetic will not drain me. This is not to say that empathy does not have a cost, but rather that I will not be used up in the process- like a tube of toothpaste which can never be refilled. In empathy I can meet the challenge to let go of old things I’ve held onto for too long so that there will be enough room for everyone, and simultaneously I can receive the gifts of others which I previously had no room for.