Empathy, perspective, and the log in all our eyes.

A story about ancient Chinese philosopher Chuang Tzu goes like this,

One day Chuang Tzu and a friend were walking by a river. “Look at the fish swimming about,” said Chuang Tzu, “They are really enjoying themselves.”

“You are not a fish,” said the friend, “so you can’t really know if they are enjoying themselves.”

“You are not me,” said Chuang Tzu, “so how do you know that I do not know that the fish are enjoying themselves?”

 

I don’t know why, maybe it’s because of our roots and heritage that the Christian church is obsessed with sin. What is it? Is this a sin? Is that a sin? Is it something I do? Something I think? Something I believe? All the above? In fact we’re so gripped by the idea of sin, actually we’re gripped by the idea of sins more so than “big S” Sin, so obsessed with them that we read the idea of transgressions back into the text where it may not even exist.

Consider Matthew 7:3-5:

“Why do you look at the speck that is in your brother’s eye, but do not notice the log that is in your own eye? Or how can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ and behold, the log is in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your brother’s eye.”

Now this passage, in my personal experiences, especially in the house church movement, has been read in two major ways.

On the one hand, it has been used as a reactive defense against confrontation. If someone says to you, “You sinned by going to watch that Batman movie.” (I wish I could say this is a fictional example.) You might say to them, “Yeah well I saw you smoking a cigarette! Get the log out of your own eye!) Hopefully shutting down the confrontation.

On the other hand, some have focused on the last verse and said “Look! Jesus meant for us to help the brother to get the speck out in the end. As long as I am free from sin in my life I have every right to point out my brother’s sin and help them remove it.” In my experience if the brother in question didn’t agree to accept the “help” it wouldn’t be long before exclusion from the community was a consequence. I’ll write more about this sad process later.

But what if we have sort of missed the point of the whole thing? If the basic premise of living a Christian life means slowly but surely eliminating your sins until you look like the “sinless” Jesus then yes, this verse would seem to fit into that paradigm somehow though it becomes very destructive. I can bear witness to this in my own experience.

But does this look different with a new paradigm of the Christian life? I think it does. What if the Christian life is about transformation through renewing our mind? Finding and exploring new ways to think about everything! And what if this is a lifelong process instead of a one time destination? This is much closer to my current view of living the Christian life. Along with other things of course.

So with a paradigm of mind renewal driving personal transformation, how might we read this verse anew?

How about instead of seeing the speck and the log as sinful behaviors or even thoughts, we look at them as faulty modes of thinking or faulty ways of seeing reality. Here’s why I think this makes sense. The eye is the key here. If something is in your eye, you can’t see properly. Everything is skewed and blurry and distorted. This isn’t a metaphor for sin. It’s a metaphor for illusion or blurred perception. I think most people who didn’t grow up in the church, or who have rejected the church at some point but are now exploring faith and spirituality understand very well the concept of not judging others and showing mercy. I would like to think I’ve tried very hard to get past my tendecy to judge the thoughts and actions of others. What I have replaced that with is a pattern of evaluating the views, beliefs, thought patterns, and perceptions of others to contrast them with my own, pass judgement on their correctness, and do my damndest to bring them over to my point of view and my way of seeing things. I want to read this passage again in terms of illusions and paraphrase a bit to explain how it’s challenging me.

Why do you always take notice of these little “incorrect” pieces of other people’s beliefs while ignoring that your entire perspective is fundamentally flawed? And how can you possibly help them change their perspective when yours is so wrong? First fix your perspective until you understand reality, then maybe you’ll be able to help the others with their illusions.

The powerful and paradoxical part of this is that most likely, it was your flawed perspective that made you think your friend was incorrect in the first place! Another paradox is that if this mind renewal perspective shift IS a lifelong process, when does it become appropriate to try to force anyone else’s perspective to get closer to yours? Reading the passage in this way really challenges me to consider that there may be better ways of sharing our journey without constantly trying to correct each other’s perspective. This is where the Chinese philosophy comes into play.

In the story at the beginning, Chuang Tzu is a victim of his friends attempt to “fix” his perspective. Just stopping right there, I have to reflect on how many times per day I do this, both internally and out loud. Just think about that. It’s not a matter of whether or not this activity is right or wrong, The fact is, I have to assume my own clarity of perspective to be so confident in my denunciation of a differing one, and where does that confidence of clarity come from? Do I really imagine that my friends don’t have that same feeling of clarity? It would be foolish to assume that my perspective is somehow more valid in an objective sense than my neighbor. So the log in my eye isn’t some bigger sin than my neighbor for which I need to repent before judging my brother, the log is the very idea that I can have certainty about the clarity of my perspective. And what if this log is removed? Perhaps the friend of Chuang Tzu, instead of denouncing his perspective, would have sought to learn more about his perspective, to understand what Chuang Tzu was really trying to say or perhaps how he was so familiar with fish feelings. In other words, he may have acted from a position of trying to experience what his friend was experiencing in that moment, which can loosely be defined as empathy.

That’s where I’m going with all of this. I think Chuang Tzu in his response was being a good friend AND a good teacher. He could have flatly contradicted his friend and emphatically stated that he knew the fish were happy. He could have backed off for the sake of avoiding conflict by saying something like, “It just looks like they are happy. You’re right, I don’t really know.” He could have gone into great detail in his knowledge of fish emotions and attempt to persuade his friend that you can know what fish feel. But instead Chuang Tzu took another path. He bypassed the assumption that there was, indeed a speck to be removed in either party’s eye and he went right for the log. “You are not me, so how do you know that I do not know that the fish are enjoying themselves?” This whole conversation is about a simple question:

Do you believe that empathy is truly possible? 

Chuang Tzu’s friend, in order to make his correction, had to assume that he understood the full range of human experience possible. So he assumed his own full empathy with humanity while ignoring the possibility that his experience was limited and growth was possible. Chuang Tzu simply took the argument to its logical extreme, which is that no empathy is actually possible because “you are not me.” In fact, the statement, “you are not a fish” is actually just another form of the more general “you are not me”. If this is true, empathy is gone. Understanding another point of view is gone. Not only will we never understand the perspective of our friends, but they cannot understand ours either and so we cannot convince them. The whole system, built upon the desire to change the mind of our brothers and sisters into the form of our mind, falls apart at the seams because if they are truly different, than they always will be and each of us is an island of self, surrounded by dark waters of our perceptions of reality, unchangeable by those around us.

The log of Jesus is the logical conclusion of Chuang Tzu’s friend. “You are not me.” If we believe empathy is possible, we fundamentally assume some kind of essential sameness. We can debate all day about the fine points of that sameness but it is required for empathy. To some extent the idea of “you are not me” is not true. The log is both the idea that I can be certain of the clarity of my perspective and the idea that you are not me. The path away from the log is one of humility and empathy.

Humility leads us away from the certainty of our own clarity and empathy leads us toward oneness with everything. Another hidden lesson in the Chuang Tzu story is the arbitrary category separation of humanity and other parts of creation in terms of the ability to empathize.

I am not saying we should never try to convince others of things, even this article is trying to convince you of something, as were Jesus and Chuang Tzu. But perhaps our arguments would look different if we were walking with the humility of knowing we are still working on our log and mentally tearing down the walls of differentiation that we build between us and everything else through the process of growing up. Both the Chinese story and Jesus’ parable give us a way to examine these ideas with benign examples void of much emotion. Only by becoming disentangled with the actual issues can we realize the bigger log, otherwise our emotional response to controversial and passionate issues blocks our ability to see it.

Of course if we find ourselves in a state of the log being removed, which some would call enlightenment, we may see that the speck in our brother’s eye was an illusion, that it isn’t important compared to the log we all carry, or we may realize that we were seeing a part of our self all along.