Empathy
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Empathy

S&I Annual Training Broadcast 2021

January 26, 2021

I appreciate what Brother Wilkinson said about those who have lost loved ones and who have suffered in other ways during this time and want you to know our hearts really do go out to you.

I’d also like to begin by simply saying thank you for your efforts during a time of great change. Your hard work to effectively teach online has been remarkable. I know some days have been discouraging, trying to help your students stay engaged with so many disruptions. So thank you for your persistent efforts. We also appreciate your willingness to adjust to other significant changes, like a new curriculum calendar and reading requirements. I’m so grateful for your immense capacity and willingness to face all of this with so much faith.

In a time of change, there’s an ability, maybe even a gift of the Spirit, that I think is important for each of us to have. It grows out of faith in Jesus Christ. It’s the ability to have confidence in the successes of the past while looking forward toward the additional light the Lord wants to provide. Elder Jeffrey R. Holland spoke of it in this way:

“The past is to be learned from but not lived in. … When we have learned what we need to learn and have brought with us the best that we have experienced, then we look ahead, we remember that faith is always pointed toward the future. …

“Faith builds on the past but never longs to stay there. Faith trusts that God has great things in store.”1

While holding on to all that is good from the past, we should seek to build on those efforts by trying to understand what the Lord would have us do next. We should be willing to ask ourselves “What lack I yet?”2 and strive to improve our knowledge, attitude, character, and performance. That too is an expression of faith.

You may remember that more than five years ago, Elder Kim B. Clark told us:

“Whatever level of spirituality we now enjoy in our lives; whatever degree of faith in Jesus Christ we now have; whatever strength of commitment and consecration, whatever degree of obedience or hope or charity is ours; whatever level of professional skill and ability we may have obtained, it will not be sufficient for the work that lies ahead. …

“ … The Lord Jesus Christ has a great work for us to do with the rising generation. It is a greater work than we have ever done before.”3

I’m grateful for your response to his invitation. I’ve seen many of you deepen your spirituality and commitment and your skills and abilities. We’ve seen many reasons why this was so important and why it will continue to be necessary to deepen these attributes in the future.

May I share with you an example? We’ve been speaking lately of the need to be more Christ-centered and learner-focused. This is not just a catchphrase or a teaching technique. Being Christ-centered and learner-focused is a way of applying the two great commandments.4 It should shape our efforts to invite more youth and young adults to participate. And it should shape our efforts to increase the power of our teaching.

When we genuinely strive to apply the first great commandment to our teaching we don’t simply make a reference to the Savior at the end of a lesson. We take every opportunity to testify of Him and to express our gratitude for Him. We move away from just talking about Him to speaking of Him as our personal Redeemer that we have come to know, love, and trust.

When we genuinely strive to apply the second great commandment in our teaching, we don’t focus merely on covering material or employing particular teaching methods for student participation. We focus on individuals and their needs, and we yearn to help them progress toward eternal life. We move away from seeing a class of students to seeing each learner as a beloved child of God with divine potential.

Those are not new ideas. We’ve always wanted to do this. So my question is, How can we build on the success of the past to do this even more effectively in the future?

Although I’ve spoken on these subjects before, in the hopes of continuing to build on the good that is being done I’d like to share just one additional thought about each of the two halves of that statement, starting with being more Christ-centered. I’ve tried to better understand what that means and what that might look like in our homes and classrooms. Certainly, we should continue our efforts to help students focus on the titles, attributes, and example of Jesus Christ.5 May I suggest an additional way? With you, I have been reminded by the Lord’s prophet, President Russell M. Nelson, that “counting our blessings is far better than recounting our problems.”6 I’ve learned from him of the blessings available to covenant Israel and that when we let God prevail, we experience healing, find answers, receive courage to face temptation and strength to fight our battles. And as President Nelson also stated, we “will experience for [ourselves] that our God is ‘a God of miracles’ [Mormon 9:11].”7 So another way to focus on the Savior is to help our students recognize the way in which He reaches out in love and mercy to all of Heavenly Father’s children.

I recently participated in a virtual class. In preparation for the class, students read Ether 2:25: “And behold, I prepare you against these things; for ye cannot cross this great deep save I prepare you against the waves of the sea.”8 Members of the class discussed this verse and how the Lord prepared the Jaredites for their journey. One student shared that she was in the middle of a trial, which she described as the most devastating thing she had ever experienced.

Then a question was asked that I believe was inspired by the Holy Ghost. What has the Lord already done to prepare you for this trial—even before it happened? What experiences has He already given you, and what lessons has He already taught you that you can draw on now? What a great question to cause us to think about how the Savior reaches out to us in love, even when that means anticipating our needs. The person who was going through the trial spoke of many ways in which the Lord had prepared her. She realized she’d had experiences she could draw on and a deep understanding and testimony of the principles she needed to know to react to this trial in great faith. A number of other members of the class shared how they had been supported by the Lord in their trials and how they have come to know that He loves them and wants to bless them.

As you and your students see the Lord’s hand in blessing the people we come to know in the scriptures, you will be able to help them also recognize the role He is currently playing in their lives. As the Book of Mormon urges, we can help them “remember how merciful the Lord hath been unto the children of men.”9

Now a thought about the second half of that statement: the need to focus on our students. We live in a time when many youth and young adults struggle with unresolved questions and feel confused by the many voices in the world. To cut through the noise they need to understand true doctrine. Just as it has always been, they need us to have the moral courage to teach and testify of eternal truth. So, how might we hold on to that—and build on it—to meet their needs moving forward? How might we better focus not just on teaching truth but on helping our students to learn truth?

One way to do that is through the Christlike attribute of empathy. Empathy is the ability to understand and share the feelings of another person. Genuine empathy brings people together; it sparks connections and helps people feel they are not alone. It is a critical part of creating a sense of belonging. This attribute is a key to responding effectively to a student with a question and to effectively leading a group discussion where many students listen carefully with unspoken questions.

Research shows that those who are struggling with faith are not generally stepping away because of doctrine. They are stepping away because they are asking their questions in the context of personal experiences that cause them to see these issues through a certain set of lenses—often through the lenses of not fitting in or through heartbreak or unmet expectations. If we answer their questions without empathy, without understanding the context, we may not provide the help they need. Even worse, if we are dismissive, judgmental, or defensive, we will lose their trust and the opportunity to have a positive influence in their lives.

The Savior was the perfect example of “speaking the truth in love.”10 His interactions were filled with empathy, always tailored to individual needs and understanding. As a result, those who felt they didn’t measure up or didn’t fit the mold of the ideal disciple still felt of His love and gravitated toward Him. They recognized that they needed Him.

Another wonderful example comes from this year’s study of the Doctrine and Covenants. Section 88 records the Lord’s instruction for the School of the Prophets. The teacher was to arrive before the students and prepare himself and the room. He was also instructed to greet the students with these words:

“I salute you in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ, in token or remembrance of the everlasting covenant, in which covenant I receive you to fellowship, in a determination that is fixed, immovable, and unchangeable, to be your friend and brother through the grace of God in the bonds of love.”11

While it would not be appropriate to begin every seminary or institute class that way, this greeting is extremely instructive and full of meaning. As Sister Virginia Pearce asked: “Can you imagine a learning environment built on such an affirmation of love and commitment from and to your fellow students? Can you imagine the personal safety they must have felt—and the energy that would otherwise have been used to defend and protect themselves and was available for them to learn and grow and change? Can you imagine the power of the Holy Ghost in a room where each participant had vowed to be a friend and brother through the grace of God in the bonds of love?”12

Just think of how that would change our classes and how it would bless individual students. Imagine, for example, a young man named Alex, who asks, “What do I do if I don’t agree with every Church policy?” How might you respond in a way that shows your love and empathy? Of course, he will need to understand the role of prophets and the importance of obedience. However, this may not be the most valuable immediate response, and it may not be sufficient for someone who is sincerely engaged in a wrestle. Before we respond to a question or lead a discussion, we may do well to first seek to understand the person who is asking or the group who is having the discussion. So if you have the opportunity to really talk with Alex, what else would you need to know, and what else would he need from you?

To start, we can listen, and we can pray for the ability to place ourselves in his shoes and try to imagine what he’s feeling. Alex is probably not asking this question as a simple mental exercise or simply to understand the doctrine. Alex has a history. He has experiences and relationships, some of which have been positive and others which have not. In fact, in this case, Alex feels a little left out when he goes to church and institute. During gospel discussions, he feels differently than many of the people who speak up. He wonders if anyone else is feeling the way he does, but no one ever seems to bring up his specific questions. These experiences have caused him to feel alone at church. When he did try to share his perspective, he did not feel heard or understood. On another occasion, a teacher made a comment about his beard. Later, a fellow student made light of an issue that Alex thought was very important. He began to feel judged and at times even angry.

But there’s something else that you need to know and remember about Alex. He is still here. He came to class. He’s coming because he loves the gospel and the Church. He is trying to hold on to his faith, and he is trying to do what is right. He is also trying to sort out, of all that he has heard and experienced in the Church, which parts are true doctrine and which parts are cultural norms or even inaccuracies that well-intentioned members have passed along. He’s caught in the middle of an emotional struggle, and he’s seeking to know the Lord’s will. How would you know all this about Alex if you didn’t listen and seek for empathy? Now that you know Alex a little better, you realize that he is not just asking about Church policy. His question is not just “Is the Church true?” He wants to know, “Is the Church good?” “Is there a place for me?” and “How do I fit in when I seem to be the only one with doubts and questions?”

You can help Alex think about his questions and reframe them with an eternal perspective. Sometimes asking the right question is an important part of receiving answers from our Father in Heaven. But having enough love and empathy to understand him and to acknowledge the context of his question will help you provide the support and guidance he needs. This is not easy and can even seem a little daunting. But I’m not asking you to lead every discussion or answer every question perfectly. I am asking you to listen, to empathize, and to help them feel of Heavenly Father’s love for them. Can you imagine the personal safety Alex and his classmates would feel and the energy that previously would have been used to defend and protect themselves that is now available for them to learn and grow and change? Can you imagine the power of the Holy Ghost in a classroom filled with friendship and with the bonds of love?

Do you remember Elder Dale G. Renlund’s counsel from the latest general conference? He told of a patient who had been hospitalized multiple times for the treatment of an alcohol-related disease. A physician in training commented that she felt it was unfair that she would have to spend so many hours caring for this patient because his predicament was self-inflicted.

Elder Renlund heard another physician respond by saying, “You became a physician to care for people and work to heal them. You didn’t become a physician to judge them. If you don’t understand the difference, you have no right to train at this institution.”13

You and I did not become teachers of the gospel of Jesus Christ to judge our students. We became teachers because we wanted to point them to the Master Healer. Only Jesus Christ has the right to judge, and only He can heal. Only by focusing every day on Him—on His example, His teachings, and His promises—can we help them discover the healing and direction they need. No matter what changes in our approach to teaching and connecting with our students, one thing will never change. The single most important way in which we can help increase faith in the rising generation is to more fully place Jesus Christ at the center of our teaching and learning by helping them to come to know Him, to learn from Him, and to consciously strive to become like Him. When the fire of your testimony is coupled with deep love for your students, you will be in the best possible position to help them understand and rely on His teachings and His Atonement and to qualify for His promised blessings. In the name of Jesus Christ, amen.

Now, I’d like to walk over and join Brother Bigelow and Brother Smith.