Tests of Empathy

Over this summer I am working on a research project interviewing Firefighters about their history of mental stressors and their impact on mental wellness in their career, in the hopes that future work can be done to help reduce major problems and keep Firefighters from leaving the service due to PTSD and other mental illness. In several of the interviews, faith is commonly brought up as a part of the support structure for these men and women as they see traumatic scenes year after year. Some discussed enjoying the community, some used faith as a centering point of there is good and bad in the world, and some it provided a "bigger picture" outlook on things. As I sat and listened to these interviews and debriefs for our research, I kept feeling there was something deeper from these Firefighters faith life other than being just a coping mechanism. I think one of the greatest contributions their faith life makes to their careers is the Gospels blueprint on how to be realistic, compassionate and empathetic in dire circumstances.

Throughout the Gospels, Christ's existence is centered around realism, empathy or compassion, and sometimes all three. These are distinct emotions that can provide structure in many situations. When a Firefighter approaches a scene, realism, compassion and empathy are used in varying amounts to provide the best outcome. Just as Christ had to be blunt sometimes with various doubters and followers, so do Firefighters need to be realistic with what can be done in a traumatic situation. Compassion and Empathy are used not only to comfort victims’ families but also to understand what is the best outcome for that situation. In the worst situations this is recover the body after the fire or crash and have to be hard-nosed on nobody seeing it, or saving the child and leaving the parent to perish. The Gospels are full of hard choices that required very finely tuned choices, take a lesson from our brave men and women in the fire service who follow Christ’s lessons. Let us balance compassion and empathy in our choices, in but also remember sometimes realism is just as important to do what is best for the situation at hand. Even when the outcome is not a good one initially, be patient, because in the words of Rob Bell, “God wastes nothing.”

Sam Jacobs

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