White Belt Empathy

Little known fact- I've taken karate a few times in my life. Never really long enough for it to be useful. I think one time I got a couple of green pieces of electric tape attached to my white belt. I was Karate level 1.2. If I was the aggressive type, that might have been enough to be dangerous. Something that made me cocky enough to try out a few moves on someone before being utterly humiliated. My white belt demonstrated that I was a force to be reckoned with. I knew just enough to get me in trouble without doing any good.


When I took karate lessons three different times, one of the first things they taught me (and thus I now know really well), is the block shown above.  If someone ever punches me in this specific manner, boy do I have their number.

I think all of us struggle at times with what I'd call "white belt empathy." That is, really, a false sense of empathy. We know just enough to get us in trouble. With white-belt 'empathy', my one counter move to any conflict is, "This person's an @%%#$%^, and I'm right." Of course, that doesn't serve me well in the real world. We are all infinitely complex creatures, with both our own brokenness and our own beauty. 

The essence of empathy is to put yourself in someone else's shoes so you can see their perspective and understand more. White-belt empathy is when you create a worst-version projection of someone else. You are seeing things from the shoes of the one-dimensional diminished construct you've built of the other person. (often to serve your own needs and interests.)

If you think you are a victim, if you think they are trying pull one over on you, get away with something, control, manipulate, etc...you can easily justify your own behavior and thoughts. It only creates a further disconnect, especially if the other person is playing the same game.

If you really believed the worst version you have in your head of the other person, why would you even bother continuing a relationship at all?

It is impossible to be arrogant and to have empathy at the same time. The Latin meaning of arrogant means 'to claim something for oneself.' Empathy, by contrast, means to 'feel what someone else is feeling.' It is difficult to connect with someone else's longings while simultaneously thinking only of yourself.

And of course, empathy is hard. It's difficult to really try and consider someone else's perspective when you've justified your anger, fear, and reactions based on your first assumptions. You'll have to have the humility to admit that you might have been wrong.

A key for empathy is to assume the best intentions in the other. Pursue evidence that helps provide a fuller story. Look for the longings behind the complaints and the conflict. (In the other as well as yourself.) There is much beauty and treasure when you learn to recognize the primal longings that exist in all of us. Notice your own fears, insecurities, and pain. How they might be distorting how you are experiencing the other and the situation.

John Steinbeck said it like this:

"In uncertainty, I am certain that underneath their topmost layers of frailty men want to be good and want to be loved. Indeed, most of their vices are attempted short cuts to love."

I think that idea might be worth grabbing a coffee, taking a long walk, and thinking about. 

***This framework for empathy is looking at empathy primarily in the context of resolving conflict. Empathy of course is an essential tool in all walks of life. The Bible speaks endlessly towards our need to love each other well and connect over our longings, fears, successes, and disappointments. "Rejoice with those who rejoice. Weep with those who weep." (Romans 12:15) "If one member suffers, all suffer together; if one member is honored, all rejoice together." (1 Corinthians 12:26) "Bear one another's burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ." (Galatians 6:2) "Finally, all of you, have unity of mind, sympathy, brotherly love, a tender heart, and a humble mind." (1 Peter 3:8)

Mentors and Gratitude.

I discovered Marcus Aurelius' Meditations a few years ago, and it has quickly become one of my favorite books. It reads like the book of Proverbs, full of practical wisdom in quick sound bites. I highly recommend Gregory Hays' translation.

The first section of Meditations is a list of people that Marcus Aurelius is grateful to for the life lessons they taught him along the way. He also includes the specific lessons he learned from them, and there are plenty of great nuggets here. Yes, even in his acknowledgments section, MA is dropping wisdom. Here are some examples:

  • “Don’t waste time on nonsense.” (from Diognetus)
  • "You need to train and discipline your character." (from Rusticus)
  • “Learn how to accept favors from friends without losing your self-respect or appearing ungrateful.”   (from Apollonius)
  • “Don’t shrug off a friend’s resentment—even unjustified resentment—but try to put things right.” (from Catulus)
  • "Learn how to sense when to push and when to back off." (from his adopted father)

This is just a portion of the wisdom from just the acknowledgments in his book! It is no wonder why Meditations has been so highly revered through the centuries. This is what I love about this first portion of the book. Marcus Aurelius is regarded as one of the great thinkers and was highly respected and very powerful in his time. He was the last of the "Five Good Emperors" of Rome. But he didn't forget where he came from. He didn't forget who poured into his life and contributed to his success. He shows both humility and gratitude here.

Many of us have had people that came into our lives at pivotal moments and made a great impact. Scott Teutsch and Karl Kaufman were two men that took me under their wings when I was a young man and taught me the Scriptures not only with their words but also with their lives. They were (and still are) great role models of what it looks like to live out the Christian faith in their careers, families, and personal rhythms. I'm grateful that they took the time to invest in me, and I hope that someday people will say the same of me. Scott was able to speak hard truth to me in love, making me take ownership while at the same time showing grace. Karl constantly showed how the Christian faith was meant to be lived out in specific, practical ways and that the journey is never over.

Of course, the list is still growing. I'm grateful for the staff at Area 10 and how they've modeled leadership and pushed me to grow. I'm grateful for the work of Kim Greene and others at the Barnabas Center and the grace and patience they've shown. I'm grateful for Dan Tocchini and his work with Blood and Ethos and the fruit I'm seeing in my own life from those conversations. I'm grateful for my wife for her relentless patience, wisdom, kindness, and grit. I'm grateful to my kids for teaching me patience. The list goes on.

Who are those key people in your life who helped shape the trajectory of your life? Who are the heroes of your story? What specifically did they teach you? What would it look like to let them know how much of an impact they made and how grateful you are for them?

Remember. Be grateful. Pay it forward.


Shape The Environments That Shape You.

The book of Deuteronomy is a sort of re-imagined Law for the Israelites as they prepared to enter the Promised Land. Deuteronomy could literally be translated "the second law." (Duo + Torah) What should life look like as they built their homes, became neighbors, settled disputes, etc? God had some thoughts. Deuteronomy 6 is known as the Shema, which simply means- LISTEN UP.

“Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might. And these words that I command you today shall be on your heart. You shall teach them diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, and when you walk by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise.  You shall bind them as a sign on your hand, and they shall be as frontlets between your eyes. You shall write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates."

(Deuteronomy 6:4-9, emphasis mine.)

God wanted this command, to love God with everything we have, to be a driving force in their lives. He wanted them to recite it and write it EVERYWHERE. When you wake up, remind yourselves. When you eat meals, remind yourselves. When you are walking down the street, remind yourselves. Put it on your doorposts, gates, and city gates so you see it when you leave and return. Write it on your hands and heads. Keep this idea constantly in front of you.

In other words, shape your environment so that it is constantly reinforcing this value. So much so that it is impossible to forget. Some Jews today take this practice literally and wear teffilin to remind themselves of the Shema word.


Even if you aren't religious, I think there is a strong lesson to be learned here.

We shape our environments and then our environments shape us.

The way that our homes and offices and lives are arranged constantly shape our rhythms and behaviors which in turn shape our character.

If a complete stranger were to walk into your house and take a look around, what would they say that you value? For most of us in American homes, the layout of our living rooms would communicate that we value being entertained by our televisions.

My wife is an avid reader, and one thing that helps her be successful is to constantly have the next few books that she wants to read already in the house. The less resistance you can create between you and your goals, the easier they will be to reach.

It is impossible to eat junk food if it is never in your house. You'll find yourself watching television less if you unplug it and put it in your closet until you really want to watch it. You'll find yourself playing a guitar more if you put it in the middle of your living room as a constant reminder of your goal. Your phone will interrupt your sleep less if you charge it in another room. You'll go to the gym in the mornings more if you set out your clothes and gear the night before. You'll use social media less if you delete the apps off of your phone. The list goes on.

What are you wanting to accomplish? What can you change about your space to make those accomplishments easier? Shape your environments so that they can help shape you into the person you want to become.

Speaking Order Into the Chaos. (Thoughts On Marriage)

In this past season of life, as I've done pre-marital counseling with younger couples, I've often made a statement along these lines:

"Ash and I have been fighting more and more in our marriage, and it has been great."

When I say that, I usually see a look of shock or concern in the couple. I imagine they are wondering silently, "Why did we pick this guy to do our counseling? We've made a huge mistake..." Here is what I mean by it.

In the first few years of my marriage, I would shut down at the first sign of disagreement. I'd give Ashley the silent treatment. Stonewall her. Play dead.  Sometimes I still do. It's my default defense. When I'm tired or overwhelmed, I still want to retreat into my inner sanctum. But I'm doing it less and less. We are getting better at staying in the tension and having hard conversations. In my opinion, our marriage is flourishing. 

In Jordan Peterson's podcast, he compares the marriage relationship to the Creation account in Genesis 1. Much like when God spoke to the chaos and created order, we speak into the chaos of a new relationship and create something of substance. Look at Genesis 1:1-5

"The earth was formless and empty, and darkness covered the deep waters. And the Spirit of God was hovering over the surface of the waters. Then God said, “Let there be light,” and there was light. And God saw that the light was good. Then he separated the light from the darkness. God called the light “day” and the darkness “night." And evening passed and morning came, marking the first day."

Christians often refer to the Creation event as "ex nihilo."  Out of nothing, something. "Formless" and "empty" sound like two great descriptors for the early years of marriage. You both come in with optimism and expectation but nothing has been established yet. Once you realize you have conflicting expectations, tensions arise and the real challenge of marriage begins.

Jordan Peterson notes:

"You make your marriage out of the arguments. (In the beginning,) no one has been able to formulate a habitable order... through dialogue, you construct a structure that's a house that you both can live in."

Don't shy away from difficult conversations. Don't shy away from conversations that you think are dull or tedious. They are often necessary components, building blocks for a substantial relationship. The inability or the unwillingness to live in tension and have an honest conversation is a death nail on intimacy.

Do the hard work. Hover over the deep. Speak into the chaos. Build a home worth living in. And it's not like the work is ever done. Life is constantly moving, evolving, changing. You often have to take stock, come to the table again, have more conversations. Keep giving form to the chaos of life.

Change is Violent.

Last Spring, I went to a transformation experience called the Revenant Process. I highly recommend it to anyone who is feeling stuck and wants to grow in self-awareness and in their leadership. In the room were a dozen or so banners with provocative ideas. One has stuck with me over the past few months:

"Transformation constantly has the character of doing violence
whether to the claims of the everyday interpretation or to its complacency and its tranquilized obliviousness." 

In other words, change is painful. Resurrection can't take place without a death of some sorts. In order for something new to happen, something old has to give. Jesus would often use violent metaphors to describe the type of work he was doing in people's lives.

"Truly, truly, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit." (John 12:24)

“Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God.” (John 3:3)

"First, take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly." (Matthew 7:5)

"Neither is new wine put into old wineskins. If it is, the skins burst and the wine is spilled and the skins are destroyed. But new wine is put into fresh wineskins, and so both are preserved.” (Matthew 9:17)

New wine is moving, bubbling, and expanding as it ferments. Old wineskins are rigid and brittle, incapable of handling the volatility of change taking place within. New wineskins are flexible, adaptable. Able to survive.

Jesus showed up on the scene and was doing an entirely new thing. He was the volatile new wine. People kept trying to stuff his teachings and his work into their old paradigms, but it wasn't working. Their old systems (full of greed, power grabs, legalism, and self-righteousness) weren't built to handle his new work (asking for generosity, servant leadership, grace-filled truth, and God-given-righteousness.) You can't expect rigid mindsets to hold an expanding worldview.

To be able to see what Jesus was doing clearly and join him in the kingdom work, they would have to take the plank out of their eyes. Change the way they see things. Expand their view.

They would have to be born again. We have three daughters, and are about to give birth to our fourth. Childbirth is a violent event. But from that violence comes new life. I don't think this metaphor is an accident.

As I've mentioned before, the word Jesus used for repentance was metanoia, which literally means to change your mind. In a sense, it is having a mental breakdown so that a rebuilding and a healing can begin.

I'm not advocating change for the sake of change. There must be something or someone that we are being called to. Jesus is the new wine. We may not have the legalism of the Pharisees or the paganism of the Romans, but we have our own versions of it. Jesus is inviting us to the difficult task of abandoning those systems for an abundant life. If we are patient and pliable, He is the new wine that brings life and joy. "God resists the proud, but gives grace to the humble."

Change is painful, and because of that, most of us don't change unless we are forced to. Henry Cloud wrote, “We change our behavior when the pain of staying the same becomes greater than the pain of changing. Consequences give us the pain that motivates us to change.”

Change requires a death. A death to me being 'right.'  A death to the way I've interpreted the story. Perhaps a death to a relationship. And because it requires sacrifice, we resist. We fight. We cling. There's a lot at stake if we let go. There's a lot more at stake if we don't.