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)