The following is an excerpt from one of Mockingbird’s best-selling books, Churchy: The Real Life Adventures of a Wife, Mom, and Priest, by Sarah Condon. If you haven’t bought your copy yet…what are you waiting for?! Now available on Kindle and in paperback.

Parents today are raising a bunch of ice monsters. At least, that’s what the endless stream of articles explaining how to “teach” compassion seems to suggest. We are told to talk to our kids at eye level or to let them speak at great length about their feelings. We worry that we must train them to be emotionally reflective human beings. Because raising a sociopath would reflect poorly on our parenting skills.

I’m sure this stuff works. But I have other advice. If you want your kids to be empathetic, let them watch a lot of I Love Lucy and encourage them to overeat at social gatherings. Incidentally, these two things may go hand in hand.

In our ninth grade year, my very best friend Emily suddenly lost her father. He died one night of a heart attack. She lived five houses down from me. There were summers I saw her family more than my own. When her daddy died, she was sadder than anybody I had ever met.

This was the January after the movie Titanic was released. Radio stations were playing Celine Dion’s “My Heart Will Go On” as though they were playing it especially for Emily. She was not fun to be around. She cried randomly. And there seemed to be no end in sight. Yet opting out of being her friend was not something my parents would have allowed. I don’t remember much about the days that followed, but I clearly remember my parents kept sending me down to her house. I would try to come home and they would say, “Oh, just stay a little longer.” We had another friend named Clint whose parents apparently did the same thing.

A few days after the news hit, Emily’s house was filled with people. Clint and I were sitting on the couch where her dad had died. We had a bowl of M&M’s and one of us dropped the whole thing in the couch cushions. We started laughing hysterically. Immediately, we got a glare from the local soccer coach but, given our proclivity for high school theatre, neither of us cared. Other people started to laugh. We even got Emily to chuckle a bit. It occurred to me, this is what we could do for her. We would eat funeral food, overstay our welcome, and not freak out when she cried.

This is basically everything I needed to know about being a priest. In my first job in ordained ministry, I served as a hospital chaplain on what people ominously called “the Liver Floor.” This wasn’t a job the more seasoned chaplains wanted. Probably because, to be quite honest, alcoholics are mean and they smell bad. And the Liver Floor was full of them. I quickly learned that if I walked into a room and there was a skinny elderly man in bed watching anything with John Wayne in it, I was about to get yelled at. Initially, this made doing visits fairly difficult. But like the persistent teenager who eats all your banana pudding and encourages you to cry when Celine Dion croons about lost love, I was determined that these guys would let me hang out with them.

I kept going back, knocking on their doors, cup of coffee in hand and talk-yelling, “Hey! I’m the chaplain! What’s the Duke up to now?”

Eventually, my relentlessness wore them down. Most of them were lonely and scared. Being on the liver transplant list as an alcoholic is a tall order. You must complete a rehabilitation program, submit to random drug testing, and attend Alcoholics Anonymous meetings with regularity. Those were the easy rooms. Sometimes, I met people who had checked all those boxes and then fallen off the proverbial wagon. Those were uncomfortable, often hopeless rooms. Fortunately, I had learned years ago that my job was never to keep people from suffering but to just sit there with them as it happened. My childhood experience taught me to overstay my welcome. And so that is exactly what I did.

People often wonder how to respond when their friends’ lives are in crisis. In ministry, I am often asked, “What do I say to someone who has just lost their father, or their baby, or a friend?” You say, “I’m sorry, this is terrible,” and then you hang out for a long time. You may be thinking, “But what if I hang out too long? What if they want me to leave?” Well, you being annoying has given them something else to focus on. You should feel good about that.

Honestly, if we want our kids to be empathetic, we should just throw them in the deep end of the suffering pool. All too often we sign our kids up for community service projects or mission trips hoping this will somehow engender a sense of compassion. And then we shield them when our neighbor’s husband dies. We do not want them to see the kind of pain that they themselves might experience. We do not want our children to be faced day after day with that same mourning widow. The problem with our ambitious save-the-world-ism is that no one learns empathy by being benevolent. We learn empathy by letting our ninth grade friend cry into a pizza.

In his classic book Kingdom, Grace, Judgment, Robert Farrar Capon tells the story of the Good Samaritan in the most insulting way possible.[1] Most of us read this parable and like to identify with the Samaritan himself. We like being the hero. But Capon says we are wrong. He writes that if there is any imitating of Jesus to be done here, it is that Jesus saw himself in the poor and the sick and the outcast. Jesus, Capon boldly asserts, is the guy left for dead on the side of the road. In other words, it is not in some self-aggrandizing act of service that we see ourselves as being Christ-like; it is in remembering that other people are beloved. And that we are beloved. And that there is no difference between us. This is the clearest path to empathy.

We learn empathy by witnessing people in the midst of their pain and by walking the uncomfortable road with them. Age wise, empathy can start early. My mother inadvertently encouraged me in this parenting model when our son was born. Whenever I would tell her about a funeral or a tough hospice visit my husband had to make, she would say, “You should bring the baby. Babies are so oblivious, and people love them.”

We heeded her advice. I hauled that kid to nursing homes and the bedsides of the dying. And what happened was always miraculous. When you are flat on your back waiting to die, everyone looks sad to see you. But not babies. They are clueless. Babies see you and they are like: Hey! A New Person! I LOVE YOU!

I’ve often wondered why hospices don’t have a Baby Visiting Program the way they bring Yellow Labs around to lie in bed with the sick and dying. Babies are the best. They don’t see illness or fear; they toot and giggle and like to be held.

These days, I don’t haul my five-year-old and two-year-old around the hospital with me. Nor do I tell them a lot of stories from my job. I have come to realize that it is not just the “very important work” I do that teaches them to empathize. Instead, it has been noticing the moments when people have taken in our family and loved us unconditionally.

Not so long ago, we had one of those weeks when it felt like the whole house was falling apart—body, mind, and spirit. Our shower poured water into our first floor, I got into a car accident, and we had to send our elderly dog home to Jesus (or wherever). The people who stepped in to help were people who knew us well. They knew that we love to entertain, and so the water coming out of our ceiling was high drama for our Southern sensibilities. They knew that car accidents are terrifying for anyone, but especially for my skittish self. They knew our tenderhearted kindergartener would be a mess for weeks over the loss of the family dog, so some of them showed up to console him more than anyone else.

Comfort food rolled in immediately. Roasted chicken, macaroni and cheese, brownies. A delivery man showed up with warm cookies and milk. Somebody brought cherries and watermelon. The house filled with peonies and roses. I could hardly look around without feeling grateful and weepy.

And then there were the offers to just hang out with us. A more reasonable line of thought made me want to turn these friends down. Did I need people to come and play dolls with my daughter? Was it necessary for my son to have companionship while he watched a Netflix movie? Well, no. But empathy, real empathy, looks like the unnecessary.

Empathy is a poor use of time and resources. It is not gallant and spiritualized. Empathy is eating too much food and overstaying your welcome. It is watching Nicholas Sparks movies and crying until you dry heave together. It is re-enacting that skit from I Love Lucy where you shove chocolates into your mouth. Because it makes you laugh. And it makes them laugh. And you love whoever “them” happens to be.

[1] Capon also bravely included in his assessment, “This means, incidentally, that Good Samaritan Hospitals have been otherwise misnamed. It is the suffering, dying patients in such institutions who look most like Jesus in his redeeming work” (323).

You can buy Churchy: The Real Life Adventures of a Wife, Mom, and Priest by Sarah Condon here!