This fall, at a weird little “resort” in the Wisconsin Dells that had two goats and a wasp-infested outdoor pool, I cracked open Cheryl Strayed’s book Tiny Beautiful Things: Advice on Love and Life from Dear Sugar, and I learned the phrase radical empathy, and my world tilted off its axis a little.
Tiny Beautiful Things is a compilation of advice columns Strayed wrote during her time as “Sugar” at the literary website The Rumpus. While at The Rumpus, she vaulted the standard “advice column” into uncharted territory: instead of giving barebones advice, Strayed gave her stories. She gave empathy. She gave herself.
I sat next to a patch of sugarcane my kids were feeding to the penned-up goats, and I read and read and read. I read people’s most fragile, terrifying questions. I read Sugar’s answers, which were so often rooted in her own moments of pain, grief, and confusion.
To the one whose friends don’t like his girlfriend, Sugar wrote, “The complicated thing about friends is that sometimes they are totally wrong about us and sometimes they are totally right and it’s almost always only in retrospect that we know which is which.”
To the woman who’s worried about whether she’s attractive: “There is nothing more boring and fruitless than a woman lamenting the fact that her stomach is round. Feed yourself. Literally. The sort of people worthy of your love will love you more for this, sweet pea.”
To the envious writer (who could be me most days of the week), Sugar said, “There isn’t a thing to eat down there in the rabbit hole of your bitterness except your own desperate heart. If you let it, your jealousy will devour you.”
People wrote their barest questions to Sugar, and she answered with the most wonderful cocktail of compassion and candidness. More often than not, she responded to the letter writer’s story with a story of her own—a memory, a confession, a distinctive vulnerability—and it was in that place where Sugar’s experience met her readers’ that radical empathy was born.
The advice she offered was not from above and beyond the problem, but from the complex middle of it. And because of that, it was searingly beautiful.
As I read the book, the thought that kept scrolling along the marquee of my mind was, The church NEEDS this. Not Sugar’s answers necessarily—or at least not all of them. Cheryl Strayed, by her own admittance, does not believe in God, so her responses have both a palpable sense of truth and wisdom and, sometimes, the tinny, hollowness that resounds when the self becomes the ultimate reality.
Not all of Sugar’s answers will apply to us as Christians, because wherever we are in our fragile, frightened spiritual journey, we are trying to hold ourselves in relation to a God who holds all things together. We are trying to ground and center ourselves in this Love. We are trying to figure out how to stay there, in the center of this Truth, when everything seems to be falling apart.
Even so, Sugar has something the church desperately needs—and that’s her method. We need to adopt her practice of radical empathy. We need it to be the language we speak to one another in church foyers and in sermons and in coffee-shop conversations and at conferences. We need fewer formulas and self-improvement books and well-meant advice offered from above-and-outside of one another’s pain.
We need to give each other what Sugar gives to the grieving mother when she writes, “Some things are so sad and wrong and unanswerable that the question must simply stand alone like a spear in the mind.”
Radical. Empathy. Radical empathy.
In the introduction to Tiny Beautiful Things, Steve Almond writes of Sugar, “People come to her in real pain and she ministers to them, by telling stories about her own life, the particular ways in which she’s felt thwarted and lost, and how she got found again.”
Is this not what the church should be doing?
He writes that “the lurking dream of all us online lurkers is that we might someday confess to our own suffering, that we might find someone who will listen to us, who will not turn away in the face of our ugliest revelations.”
Is that not what Christ offers?
He writes that Sugar “understands that attention is the first and final act of love, and that the ultimate dwindling resource in the human arrangement isn’t cheap oil or potable water or even common sense, but mercy.”
And if we can give anything to one another, shouldn’t it be mercy?
After all, so much mercy has been shown to us.
So much mercy.
I am not Cheryl Strayed. I lack her literary depth and her distinctly sassy voice and her super-cool moniker, Sugar.
I am not a licensed therapist (though I have been to a lot of therapy) or a spiritual director or an expert. There is so much I don’t know, and I’ll be the first to admit that I am in no way qualified to give wisdom or advice.
But I can give radical empathy.
I can read your letter and speak to you from the raging reality of my own failures, my own baggage, my own hard-fought battles.
And this is why I agreed to start this new column, Dear Addie. It will be an “advice column,” but not in the traditional sense. The guidance you’ll find here will not be the sort you’ll get in your parenting group or in the weekly church Bible study or in some how-to book you’d find in the self-help section. It will be advice drenched in reality, waterlogged in my own life—imperfect and honest and, hopefully, full of that radical empathy we, all of us, need.
But I think there might be something more that happens in a column like this, when your story meets my story. When our questions collide. When you offer your most terrifying questions, and I respond with mine, and in that collision, we find mercy. Grace. Beauty.
The Dear Addie column will appear here at Off the Page—once a month (to start). We invite you to send your questions about life and love, about God and church, about your spiritual baggage and your daily struggles. You can sign your name, or you can write anonymously. If chosen, your letter will be published here, followed by my response.
And I can’t promise to solve your problem neatly, perfectly, or quickly. But I can promise my own version of radical empathy. I promise I will listen to your suffering and not turn away. That I will share my own struggles with all the honesty and starkness I can muster, and I’ll offer you the handholds and encouragements that have helped and continue to help me navigate homeward. And I believe that somewhere in the midst of all that giving, all that asking and answering, we might find mercy, beauty, grace.
We might find the radical empathy modeled by a God who allowed himself to be born in the stone-cold manger, who walked the dusty streets of our world, who cried all night long in the garden and then went to the cross anyway.
The God who has been here.
The God who knows.
The God whose mercy is as deep and wide and endless as the sea.
Click here or the image below to send your questions about life and love, about God and church, about your spiritual baggage and your daily struggles. You can sign your name, or you can write anonymously. If chosen, your letter will be published on Off the Page, followed by Addie’s response.