Empathy. That’s where my thoughts have been. The power of real, deep heart-to-heart human connection.
I spent some time on the Orkney islands in the summer. It was my first visit, fulfilling a soul-yearning for the area that I still don’t really understand. It’s a place that is rich in Neolithic history, the landscape literally stuffed full of five-thousand-year old human stories.
We spent our first full day there visiting the archaeological dig at the Ness of Brodgar’s Open Day, the archaeologists on hand to explain the treasures they had found beneath our feet. And it was fascinating. How science, and care, and precision, and knowledge, and expertise, and the good old-fashioned hard graft of digging combined, enabling them to find and unearth and interpret the stories written into the ground, connecting humankind across thousands of years.
And it was fascinating how an ancient community, even older than the pyramids, still had so many stories to tell, of how they lived and organised themselves, of extraordinary creativity and ingenuity, craftsmanship and artistry, society and shared living.
As the week went on, we visited other five-thousand-year-old treasures. The chambered cairn of Maeshowe, engineered so its entrance was perfectly aligned with the light of the setting midwinter sun, and covered in runic graffiti, tagging the names of Viking invaders and their bawdy exploits. The standing stones at the Ring of Brodgar, built in line with the remains at the Ness and the cairn of Maeshowe, mysterious in their size and placement, hinting at Stone Age transport innovations and a shared communal spirituality. Skara Brae, the Neolithic settlement hidden beneath the sand dunes, uncovered by a nineteenth-century storm, revealing the perfectly-preserved secrets of our ancestors who lived there – a community who in all likelihood lived in family groups, gathering around a central hearth, sleeping in box beds, displaying their treasures on stone-built dressers. We saw the four-centimetre tall Westray Wife, the earliest known carving of a human form found in Scotland and one of only three such carvings found throughout the whole of the UK; a tiny stone person, with pin prick eyes, an M-shaped brow line, a possible nose and mouth below.
And everywhere we went, there was human connection. Shared humanity. Shared values. Our Stone Age forebears were not primitive or inhuman; they were innovative and societal, craftspeople and artists, spiritual beings and master engineers, their monuments surviving for thousands of years.
And it struck me time and again that the only reason we know all this, the only reason we can connect with them across millennia, is because of humans now – archaeologists, historians, volunteers and more – whose minds, hearts and souls yearn across the ages to connect with our forebears, to understand them. Empathy. Deep human connection.
And it struck me that empathy, deep human connection – that is kingdom work. Jesus embodies empathy. He saw people, he read them, he understood. From the widow who gave all that she had, to the woman caught in adultery; from Zacchaeus in the tree, to his encounter with Judas at the Last Supper; in his response to Peter cutting off the soldier’s ear at his arrest, and in the way he allowed for the restoration of their relationship at the barbecue on the beach. He is all about empathy. That is at the heart of how he relates to people. When Mary and Martha sent for him as Lazarus lay dying, he delayed his journey – allowing for the greater miracle of resurrection, yes, but also for that short but well-known Bible verse. He wept. He allowed time to feel their deepest grief and loss alongside them. Empathy.
In a world where so many of our political leaders choose to build a stance of unassailable power on bullying tactics and threats, on retribution and sanctions, it is empathy that is needed. Empathy is how we bridge the divide, geographically, culturally, spiritually, historically. Empathy is how we draw together across the division of values and beliefs. Empathy, built through shared stories and experience, founded on strong and sacrificial love for our fellow humans and our world.
Shared humanity. Real, deep, heart-to-heart human connection. Hospitality and openness. Empathy.
That is my choice. Join me?