The Power of What if? How Imagination Guides Us Toward Deeper Love for our Neighbors

Loving your neighbor as yourself would be easy if your neighbors were all people you understood, people you agreed with, people like you. But we don’t – we live in a broken world, so how do we love well in all the division? Lauren Casper believes the key to loving others is in embracing the lost art of empathy, stepping into other people’s shoes and asking what if?—what if it were my child? What if it were me? Lauren unpacks the importance of empathy, and how to cultivate it, in her book, Loving Well in a Broken World. It’s a grace to welcome Lauren to the farm’s front porch today…

guest post by Lauren Casper

I have a very active imagination. Say a word, and my mind cooks up an image as vivid as if it were real life.

And it isn’t a vague thought that skips by; it’s as detailed as a 3D movie, and it doesn’t go away.

I can clearly visualize all kinds of events and scenarios.

This strange superpower has contributed heavily to my anxiety over the years, but recently I’ve learned to see it as a gift.

In any given situation, I can ask myself, What if? and then imagine every possible answer to that question.

For example . . .

When I read a headline about a child dying in a border detention center, I immediately picture my own eight ­year ­old son in his place. I see him sick and shivering and scared. His eyes are vacant and frightened and despairing all at once.

My heart lurches, and I want to crawl out of my skin, because I am nearly losing my mind at the thought of my son hurting and alone without me there to hold, comfort, and reassure him.

When I hear about another school shooting on the radio, I imagine my terrified daughter huddled under her first­grade desk and the fear coursing through her veins while I am miles away and helpless to stop it.

When I read another article about an unarmed black teenager who was shot and killed by the police, I glance over at my tall­ for ­his ­age black son playing in the pool with a small water gun, and my mind melds the two stories together.

Suddenly it’s him with the toy, not Tamir Rice, and my gut lurches to my chest as I try to shake the image of my own child lying facedown for no reason at all except that white supremacy still kills.

Imagination is a tool, and just like any other tool, it can be used to destroy or create.

If we let imagination feed our anxiety, it will cripple us.

But if we cultivate our imagination as a way to feed and grow our empathy, we can build relationships and forge new paths to our neighbors. We can love.

The ability to hear something, immediately conjure up a mental image, and hold it there can be a gift – because it can lead us to empathy.

If left unchecked, our what-­ifs can make us run from the world, but the opposite can also be true:

Our what-ifs can help us run toward the world instead.

  • What if it were my child who was sick, cold, and alone? How would love bring healing?
  • What if I were struggling to pay the mortgage and buy groceries? How would love show me God’s generosity?
  • What if I were caught in the cycle of addiction? How might love set me free?
  • What if I lost my husband to violence? How would love grieve with me?
  • What if I were being persecuted by authority figures? How would love fight for justice?
  • What if everywhere I looked, doors were being slammed in my face? How would love open them?

Imagination has the power to cultivate empathy when we can picture ourselves inside someone else’s story or situation.

Maybe this is part of the reason Jesus so often taught in parables. He wanted His listeners to see the world in a new way—through the eyes of another.

If the greatest commandment Christ gives us is to love God and love our neighbors, it makes sense that His teaching style would use stories rather than abstract principles.

When crowds grumbled about Jesus eating with tax collectors and others they considered undesirables, Jesus didn’t look them in the eye and say, “Here’s the principle: every human being is valuable and matters to God.”

He told them a story about one lost sheep and a shepherd who left the ninety­nine to find the one.

He told them about a woman losing a coin in her home and turning the whole place upside down to get it back.

He painted a word picture of a son who betrays his father, squanders his inheritance, and hits rock bottom, but is still welcomed home by a father who runs out to embrace him.

What parent can’t picture themselves in that story? As a mom, I know that there is nothing my children could do to make me not love them.

When Jesus saw the self­righteousness of religious authorities who heaped judgment and scorn on others, He told the story of a humble tax collector.

When His own disciples wanted to put a limit on forgiveness, He told them the story of a servant who owed his master an enormous sum of money.

When the servant couldn’t pay, the master ordered him sold along with his wife and children. But the servant fell to his knees, begging forgiveness and grace. The master had compassion on him and forgave the debt.

The servant then went to his fellow servant who owed him a small amount of money and tried to beat it out of him, refused him mercy, and had him thrown in jail.

The imagery is enough. We get that one is wrong and the other right. We feel disgust and anger at the hypocrisy of the unforgiving servant—and this is the point.

Our empathy peaks, and we instinctively understand how to love our neighbors better.

And when a lawyer looks for a loophole by asking, “Who is my neighbor?”, Jesus tells the story of a man beaten and left for dead, and how two men pass Him by but a third does not.

The Samaritan gives of his time, his money, his donkey, his clothing, his shelter, and his friendship.

The story stirs something in our hearts, and we know deep down, even before we read the next words in the story, what the answer is to the lawyer’s question.

We know who our neighbor is.

Imagination has guided us through to empathy.

We need to let our minds wander deeper into the myriad of possibilities and struggles and emotions and needs and choices that could happen in the land of what ­if.

And then, we get to let our imagination lead us into greater empathy for one another, which propels us into the arms and homes and lives of our neighbors, allowing us to love them as we love ourselves.

 

Lauren Casper is the author of Loving Well in a Broken World and It’s Okay About It. She is an advocate, speaker, and amateur baker. Lauren is the founder of the popular blog laurencasper.com and has had numerous articles syndicated by the Huffington Post, the TODAY Show, Yahoo! News, and several other publications.

Christians are called to love our neighbors as ourselves, but we often don’t know how, especially today. How do we love our neighbors when we’re afraid of stepping on toes or don’t know how to connect? Lauren has found that the effective path to loving others is through the lost art of empathy.

In Loving Well in a Broken World: Discover the Hidden Power of Empathy, Lauren helps us tear down our pride and overcome our fear to choose empathy over apathy and judgement. Through storytelling and vulnerability, she empowers us to discover the surprising and beautiful places empathy might lead us.

Whether in the pews, on twitter, in the hospital waiting room, around our dinner tables, or in the corners of our neighborhoods, discover how empathy can be our guide as we seek to love our neighbors well.

[ Our humble thanks to Thomas Nelson for their partnership in today’s devotion ]