by Lindsey Abston Painter | 12 January 2024 |
“I promise you there is something worse out there than being sad, and that’s being alone and being sad. Ain’t no one in this room alone.” – Ted Lasso
A few weeks ago I finished watching the final season of the Apple TV series Ted Lasso. If you haven’t seen it, it’s about a folksy, optimistic American college football coach who, through a bizarre set of circumstances, ends up coaching a British professional soccer team—though he has had no experience with the sport.
And from this point on I’ll call soccer “football” because all the characters on the show would be very offended otherwise.
(A couple of notes. This article contains spoilers, so if you haven’t watched it you might want to do that first. Also, even though I loved the show, I must warn Adventist Today readers that it is quite liberal with profanity.)
Ted’s secret weapon
At first, everyone expects Ted to fail: the owner of the team hired him with the intention that he fail, to spite her unfaithful ex-husband who loved the team. Ted’s inexperience, silliness, and old-fashioned sense of humor are splashed across the newspapers nationwide. The players hate him, and the press mock him.
But Ted has a secret weapon. Ted’s strength isn’t only his relentless positivity or his folksy nature. It is his radical empathy. Even in the face of the worst behavior, he sees the person, their needs and their pain. In the absence of understanding, he gives those around him the benefit of the doubt, even when it seems ridiculous to everyone else.
There are few places in this world more devoid of empathy than professional sports, but Ted insists on seeing the best in people no matter how outrageous or hurtful their behavior is. And slowly, over time, the culture begins changing around him. The angry pro footballer who is aging out of the sport and doesn’t know what to do with himself next; the “kit man” whose job it is to fold the towels and wash the socks; the cocky young jerk who believes himself to be God’s gift to the sport; the reporter who published a think piece about how Ted should resign; the young groupie who dates football player after football player, not believing she could be something more; and the team’s owner licking her wounds from the recent public humiliation of her ex’s unfaithfulness and the subsequent divorce—Ted’s relentless empathy gets through to all of them.
And really, isn’t that kind of what Jesus was like? His empathy was so radical and uninhibited that people had no choice but to pay attention. Someone like that is too compelling to ignore. Some people love it and it heals them.
Nate, hate and love
And some people can’t bear it because of the pain inside them.
Nate is a “kit man” who washes the towels and socks and prepares the locker room for the team. Ted recognizes coaching genius in him and elevates him to assistant coach, a position the young Nate with extremely low self-esteem wouldn’t have dreamed of.
At first Nate is thrilled, and flattered at Ted’s attention. But as Nate becomes famous he is pulled by the temptations of fame and power. While everyone around him embraces Ted’s optimism and empathy, Nate pulls away, growing more bitter with each passing day.
Eventually, he leaves the team to coach for a rival team, owned by the previously mentioned philandering ex-husband. Under that man’s tutelage Nate learns to sink into his toxic masculinity. He throws people under the bus to gain power, weaponizes the media against Ted, publicly insults him, and claims all the money and power he thinks he deserves.
Nate hated Ted because he hated himself, because he couldn’t bear to see himself and all his pain in the light that radical empathy shines. In the end, Nate learns on his own that the way of empathy and vulnerability is the way to inner peace.
Ted’s example of wholesome masculinity leads the whole team to embrace vulnerability, and form intimate bonds with one another. Watching these men who have been taught to be aggressive and competitive as a way of life slowly learn to open up to one another, share their struggles, and receive support from one another is one of the most heartwarming things I’ve ever seen on television.
In the end, the team learns not only how to support one another in their lives, but their bond allows them to work together on the football field in a way that surprises everyone, with freedom to move beyond their assigned positions to fill in the gaps, in tune with one another. Despite being the underdogs, their cooperation and trust in one another leads them to victory.
What’s needed among Christians
Ted isn’t perfect. He has a mess of personal issues he is trying to work through. But he is committed to radical empathy and he chooses it consistently over self gain. His effectiveness as a coach proves its efficacy over the course of the show.
Jesus was similarly committed to radical empathy. He demonstrated empathy over judgment of others, and over personal gain, time and time again. Jesus refused to respond to someone’s bad behavior. He responded to their hearts.
This is one of the things modern Christianity seems to struggle with. Radical empathy means accepting people exactly as they are and loving them exactly as they are. Many modern Christians cling to the idea of “love, not acceptance” as in, “love the sin, not the sinner.”
But I would argue that while love and acceptance aren’t the same thing, you can’t truly have love or the radical empathy of Jesus without acceptance. “Love” without acceptance is conditional on a person’s behavior changing to fit your expectations. In other words, change to fit my narrative or I will withdraw my love. That isn’t really love. That’s more like abuse.
The way Ted Lasso loves, and the way Jesus loves, is with full acceptance. Jesus doesn’t see your behavior; he sees your heart. And that is the way we are all called to love.
None of us can feel truly emotionally safe without acceptance. Ted Lasso fostered an environment that made all the characters feel seen and accepted by him. Jesus had that same effect on people. Roman, Samaritan, or Jew. Women or men. Tax collectors, prostitutes, fishermen, and sinners all were drawn by the radical empathy of Jesus.
Jesus said the world would know that we are Christians by our love. Is that what we are known for? Is that what you are known for?
As for me, I choose radical empathy.
Lindsey Abston Painter lives in Northern California. She is also a member of the Adventist Today editorial team. She is passionate about feminism, social justice, and sci-fi. She is a proud parent and has too many cats and one goofy dog.