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How to Empathize With People Younger Than You

It's a Sunday morning. A freshmen college girl had messaged me wanting to meet at coffe shop to talk about some relational struggles she's been experiencing. As we sat across each other sipping our ice-brewed beverages, she explained to me about the latest "drama" that she's been having with her dormmates. 

Apparently she liked one of the boys who lived in the same hall & they were flirting throughout the quarter. Though she only knew him for about a month, she felt like he may be "the one." However, to her dismay, she discovered he recently hooked up with another dormmate at a frat party. Though she wants to confront them about it, she feels weird since they weren't really dating. More so though, she feels hurt. In fact, she wonders whether she'll ever find love again.

As I sat there listening to her, I couldn't help but think, "Dear God...I'm a grown man with a wife & kid. Why am I talking to this girl?" It took all my pastoral power not to slam my face on the table while shouting, "Dude - You're going to be fine!" Of course I didn't do this. Instead I pretended like I cared (I'm messed up) & told her I'd pray for her - and then I walked out contemplating why I became a pastor & spent the drive home daydreaming about being a farmer instead. 

In other words, I was having a really hard time empathizing with what this young, 18-year-old girl was going through.

Problems Empathizing With Youth

Can you relate? If you're a parent, older sibling, youth teacher or small group leader, then I'm sure you can. I'm sure there have been instances where you've met with someone younger & you hear their problems & they all sound so...trivial. For example:

  • Collegians: When you hear about a high schooler stressing over their SAT scores or worrying about ASB elections, aren't you tempted to just roll your eyes at their teenage issues?
  • Post-grads: When you hear about collegian's panicking about changing majors or asking for prayer about which Christian ministry to serve in, don't you often sigh & think, "Really? You need prayer for that?" 
  • Married Couples: Isn't it exasperating when you counsel dating couples & hear them fighting about "liking" each other's facebook posts when you know there are such bigger relational issues?
  • Parents: Aren't married couples funny? They think they're tired now...we laugh at them for two minutes straight & think, "Wait till you have a kid." And then parents with multiple kids laugh at us & whisper, "Oh young padawans..."

In other words, we look at a younger person's "problems" & tend to have a dismissive attitude towards them. We're older & wiser now. And therefore when we talk to that college freshman or newly wed, we're often tempted to groan & bluntly tell them, "Dude - that's really not a big deal."

Why We Need to Change

As tempting as this is, let me ask: Has such a response ever helped someone? Have you ever told your small group member, "Dude it's not a big deal" & saw them sigh with relief saying, "Man, you're right. I didn't see it that way." That never happens because by dismissing their situation, you're dismissing them. And though their situation may not be a big deal - it feels like one to them.

Think about your problems. Would you ever find it helpful if someone older told you, "Dude, that's not a big deal." Or think about the problems you experienced as a high schooler - you now realize how silly those issues were. And yet wasn't it hurtful when say your parents dismissed them? And conversely, wasn't it so helpful when other older figures empathized with you?

This is why in To Kill a Mockingbird I loved Atticus Finch - particularly the way he intereracted with his young daughter Scout. Scout would always talk to Atticus about her struggles & fears - silly ones that most of us would roll our eyes at. Though Atticus was a 50-year-old dad, he would always sit down with her, listen to her, & respond to her. In other words, he would never dismiss her situation but instead would always dignify it.

There was something healing about that, which made Scout feel loved & made us want Atticus to be our dad.

Learning to Empathize

So how do we do this? How can a 40-year-old father empathize with a 20-year-old collegian? How can a young adult not roll her eyes at a 16-year-old high schooler? How can we be like Atticus where we don't dismiss a person's problems but dignify it? And more so, how can we do this authentically? It's easy to fake it - but can we really empathize with people younger than us?

Well I've been ministering to college students & young adults for many years now and this is what helps me. While I may not be able to always relate to their situations anymore - I can always relate to the pain their experiencing. If a collegian is worried about changing his major, I may have a hard time empathizing with "changing majors" - but I can empathize with the anxiousness he feels. I know what it's like to not know what the future holds & how scary that can be.

Or take that freshmen girl I grabbed coffee with. As a married man, I may not ever worry about my wife hooking up with a random dude at a frat party (at least I hope not) - but I do know what it's like to feel rejected. I know what it's like to feel betrayed & hurt by the opposite sex. And it's that common, human connection that I need to look for - because when I find it, then I'll be to empathize with her no matter hold old she is.

By no means am I perfect at this. When a college student asks me to pray for her about whether to lead inreach or outreach at her church, it'll always going to be tempting to think, "You're problems are so silly compared to the grand scheme of things."

But I'm always rebuked when I realize Christ is looking down from His throne on my worries & problems - and yet despite knowing all things & seeing all things, He never rolls His eyes at us. Rather He tells us to "not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer & supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God" (Phil 4:6).

In other words, Christ is the ultimate Atticus Finch who does not dismiss but rather dignifies our pain. And if He constantly does this for us, shouldn't we be able to do that for others?