Pick Up Empathy Instead

scarlet letter

Several weeks ago, while sitting in church, it occurred to me that I’ve long been fascinated by stories about adulterous women – actually two stories in particular, Nathanial Hawthorne’s timeless classic, “The Scarlet Letter” (1850), and the New Testament account of Jesus’ encounter with the adulterous woman, which I happened to be listening to at the time of my revelation – but not for the reasons you might think!  No, my interest in those stories stems from the light that both authors shine on two of the darkest and most destructive of all human emotions: shame and the lack of empathy and compassion we tend to have towards those experiencing shame, notwithstanding our own human frailties and indiscretions.

Chances are even if you’re not a Biblical scholar (which I certainly am not) or a person of faith for that matter, you’re at least generally familiar with the story of Jesus and the adulterous woman.  To hear John tell it, Jesus was teaching in the temple square, when a group of Scribes and Pharisees essentially dragged a woman, who, just a few hours earlier, had been caught in the act of adultery, and placed her before Him and the gathering crowd.  Suffice it to say, the Scribes and Pharisees weren’t seeking Jesus’ advice as to what to do with the woman, despite that being the apparent intent of their inquiry.  Indeed, as evidenced by their question, Jewish law was quite clear and unequivocal with respect to the appropriate punishment: “Teacher, this woman has been caught in the act of adultery. Now, in the Law, Moses commanded us to stone such women. So what do you say?” Instead, they hoped He would respond in a way that was contrary to the Law, so that they could later use it against Him – and He certainly did not disappoint!  To the contrary, we’re told that Jesus bent down and began to trace in the sand.  When they persisted, He straighten and challenged the crowd saying: “Let the person among you who is without fault be the first to throw a stone at her.”  He then returned to the sand and, as he did, the crowd quietly began to disperse, one at a time, ”beginning with the older ones” (LOL!) until Jesus was alone with the woman.  He then turned to the woman and said, “Woman, where have they gone? Has no one condemned you?” She responded, “No one, Lord.” And Jesus said, “Neither then do I condemn you; go and sin no more.”

For purposes of this post, let’s set aside the theology of things.  From my perspective, even if the foregoing story was pure fiction – a fairy tale of sorts – it wouldn’t lessen the import of its message any more than the fictional nature of Hawthorne’s work diminishes its worth.  The adulterous woman had to be dragged into the courtyard because she was filled with shame and like most shame-filled people she feared (in fact, given the prevailing law of the day, she knew with absolute certainty) that if she shared her shame openly she would be judged unworthy (of Life!) – a judgment she almost certainly already had imposed on herself.  That is the nature of shame and one of the many reasons it is so insidious.  Would that she had known ahead of time what would unfold that day in the square – that she would not be judged for her transgression, that instead her shame, put on display for all the world to see, would be met with (and, ultimately, dissolved by) compassion and empathy.  Consider the implications of this – please!  I don’t know about you, but the older I get, the easier it is for me to relate to those “old guys” who were the first to put down their stones and walk away.  I’m here to encourage others not to wait until you’re old to understand the importance of “putting your stones down” and “picking up” empathy and compassion.  Because the truth is: When we are less judgmental and more vulnerable, which all of us have the capacity to be, we give others (loved ones and strangers alike) the “permission” they desperately need to be more vulnerable themselves and, eventually, to find the courage to release their shame.  Conversely, when we’re not, shame remains locked away deep inside the soul of its host or hostess and allowed to continue to do its dirty work.

I often wish John had added a post-script to his story.  One that let his readers know that not only did the crowd disperse, but that, the following day, one of its members invited the adulterous woman out for a cup of coffee at the Starbuck’s of the day and, after giving her a warm embrace, confided that many years earlier he too had done things he was ashamed of – and was glad to finally be able to get them off his chest with someone who could understand!


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