Empathy - Even for the Middle East

Amman, Jordan - May, 2016

My mother-in-law is Syrian. As a middle-class American-born, United States Marine Corps veteran, you can imagine how completely opposite we are as women. Just about every aspect of our cultures and lives are in complete contrast. We have only two things in common: we understand what it means to persevere when life throws rocks at you, and we both love the same man unconditionally: her son, my husband. I’ve been trying to find some kind of common ground with her since my husband first introduced us over a year ago. Apart from the aforementioned things, the first one is more of a personal observation; I haven’t had much success on the subject.

One of the most significant culture differences between Arabs and Americans is our methods of communication. In most cases, American’s are very direct. We say what we think, we get right to the point and we have no qualms about speaking our mind – regardless of the consequences. Arabs are the exact opposite. In most cases, direct conversation is rude. It’s best to speak around a topic, converse in generalities and with vague hints in a broad direction of the purpose of the exchange. Being married to a man who spent the majority of his life in the Middle East this was a fun fact to learn on our honeymoon! It gave me some insight, however, into why I was struggling so much to converse with them over lunch or dinner.

Meeting with my husband’s family always launched me into a whirlwind of apprehension in my already-anxious heart. Hundreds of questions highlighting my insecurity burst forth in my brain like confetti on New Years Eve. Being married to her son I obviously want to get along with my mother-in-law. I want so much to have a connection that we can share as women – not to mention the relief it would give my husband. But how? In truth, so long as I was holding to my culture, my way of doing things, my preferences and judgments, my, my, my… I was never going to find common ground. I was never going to understand her and never be understood. This has forced me into doing something I’ve never been very good at: empathizing.

People often mix up the definition between empathize and sympathize. Let me clarify the differences. Sympathy is the “fact or power of sharing the feelings of another, especially in sorrow or trouble” (http://www.dictionary.com/browse/sympathy?s=t). Empathy, on the other hand, is “the psychological identification with or vicarious experiencing of the feelings, thoughts, or attitudes of another” (http://www.dictionary.com/browse/empathy?s=t). One has to do with sharing one’s feelings, and the other has to do with ignoring your own emotions, and choosing to identify with another’s psychological state.

Think of it this way. If you’ve fallen into a pit and can’t get out, I might yell down to you, “That’s a really bad spot you’re in!” I’m agreeing with your feelings and showing you sympathy. However, if I lower a ladder and climb into the pit with you, I might say, “this is a really bad spot you’re in. But I’m here with you until you’re ready to get out of it.” This is empathy.

Empathizing with my husband and seeking to understand the Arab culture has been difficult, much of it I don’t understand or necessarily agree with, but it continues to give me some invaluable insight into the people I care about. I can look at my mother-in-law with compassion, seeing more clearly the life she has led to make her into the woman she is today – strong and loyal, passionate and fierce. When I moved to the Middle East nearly a year ago I had my own prejudices that needed to be set aside in order to make the most of my time here. Marrying into the Arab culture has given me even more insight to the beautiful people that hold proudly to their ancient heritage. I had to really open my eyes, observe behavior and listen to conversation with real people in it, rather than replay the years of military training and CNN reports that echoed so well in my head.

The truth? Most Arabs worry about the families of the Egyptian flight that recently crashed. Most Arabs just want to sit at a kitchen table surrounded by their family and laugh and eat. Most Arabs will speak kindly and respectfully when asking you to adhere to their culture with your dress and language. Most Arabs are very happy to see you trying to use your very broken Arabic, but will be more than willing to speak in their broken English to help you out. Most Arabs will pull over and help a white woman change a flat tire on the side of the road regardless of how late they’re running to work – because community and helping another person is more important. Most Arabs will do anything to stop a woman from crying. Most Arabs, though they might act superior and tough at first, are really very laid back and happy to spend most of their time smoking shisha and socializing. Not just with other Arabs either, but anyone willing to show compassion on the majority for the sins of the few who have given them such a bad reputation, and a willingness to learn and adhere to their culture.

Not so different from Americans at all.

I once read that opinion is the lowest form of human knowledge. According to Bill Bullard, “It requires no accountability, no understanding. The highest form of knowledge is empathy, for it requires us to suspend our egos and live in another’s world. It requires profound purpose larger than the self kind of understanding.” It’s the essence of standing in someone else’s shoes, yes, but it’s also about looking through their eyes, hearing with their ears and feeling with their heart. Christ himself, when faced with people so opposite him and his goodness, found compassion, mercy and love for them (John 8:1-11). It takes work, and a lot of humility. But the more I practice it, the more I’m finding I’m a better person for it.

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