“Let there be such a oneness between us
that when one cries the other tastes salt.”
The student pulled the frayed bill of his dark gray baseball cap over his eyebrows and slumped further down on the brown sofa in my office. He had been late again with a paper and came in with the multiple excuses that try any teacher’s patience. I felt that impatience rising in me then and prayed, Help me love this young man. That’s when I noticed how skinny he was and tall, lanky, and somewhat awkward as if still growing into his adult body. I grew over time to have genuine affection for this young man, mainly because I asked God to help me understand him better.
Empathy seems the only path through the interpersonal challenges of life.
Empathy comes from the Greek paschó, for “to suffer,” and especially “to feel heavy emotion, experience strong feelings profoundly.” Its deep roots in “feeling with” someone explain how we enter another’s life to stand in their shoes. Sometimes that means we wear a frayed baseball cap. Passion and compassion share this heart, as does apathy, though the prefix a- (“without”) changes the meaning to “unfeeling.”
Empathy deserves more attention than it sometimes gets because empathy improves the quality of our lives and those around us. When I accept the grace to be empathic, or loving, my life sparkles with joy. But when I’m judgmental, I’m also apathetic — my inner self darkens, becoming bitter and small-minded. Being judgmental seems synonymous with lacking self-knowledge. We’re all made of clay, and self-knowledge steeped in Christ’s grace is the surest route to truly loving. As I come to know my own self better, my desire to judge others keeps on dissipating.
I guess empathy can be “useful,” but that’s not its real calling. In the sci-fi TV series Star Trek, there’s a super-empathic half-Betazoid, half-human Starfleet officer, Counselor Deanna Troi, who always knows what others are feeling or if they’re lying. This skill makes her a valuable team member, but in “The Loss” episode she temporarily loses her empathic abilities and discovers this damages her quality of life; she tells the android Data: “I feel as two-dimensional as our friends out there. In the universe but barely aware of it. Just trying to survive on instinct.”
Even if we can’t be as empathic as a half-Betazoid Star Trek character, we can pay attention to cultivating empathy in our lives; first for our own selves, as a way to experience God’s love through self-acceptance, and second, for others, to enter the larger space that Christ himself recommended when he told us to get the log out of our own eye before we even notice the speck in our neighbor’s eye.
It’s encouraging that we’re built for empathy. Emory biologist Frans de Waal notes: “[E]mpathy . . . is rooted as much in our bodies as in our minds.”] He opens his Age of Empathywith the ancient question: “Are we our brothers’ [and sisters’] keepers?” and he answers it by quoting economist Adam Smith: “How[ever] selfish . . . man may be supposed, there are evidently some principles in his nature, which interest him in the fortune of others, and render their happiness necessary to him, though he derives nothing from it except the pleasure of seeing it.”
In “Six Habits of Highly Empathic People,” Roman Krznaric says we are “wired for empathy, social cooperation, and mutual aid,” and he reminds us that neuroscientists have identified a ten-section “empathy circuit” in our brains that, though perhaps not a supercharged Betazoid paracortex, helps us understand what others are feeling.
Krznaric recommends the following habits to cultivate empathy:
Cultivate curiosity about strangers (chronic loneliness afflicts one in three Americans).
Challenge prejudices and discover common interests by becoming friends with someone whom before you stereotyped.
Try another person’s life, for example, by visiting their church or synagogue or mosque.
Listen radically and open up.
Find ways, as psychologist Marshall Rosenberg says, “to be present to what’s really going on within — to the unique feelings and needs a person is experiencing in that very moment.”
We can nurture empathy in ourselves by desiring to become more genuine human beings.
We don’t have to go it alone, thankfully. We remember Christ is the great Empathizer. Julian of Norwich writes that he loves us in the middle of our weaknesses and sin because he knows each one of us so well; in a story from her Revelations, she says that “with great compassion and pity” Christ looks “very lovingly and gently” on any fallen servant or disciple.
May we pass Christ’s strong love, great compassion, and gentle concern on to those we meet.
Postscript: New ways to inspire empathy flourish in our digital age. My friends Tom Schulz and Sheila Ennis created a beautiful website, empathinc., that is a collaborative of “painters, writers, educators, thinkers, architects, videographers, musicians, sculptors, builders, healers, storytellers and generally swell people.” They have come together in cyberspace to promote empathy and the arts, spurring personal growth, spiritual transformation, and community service.
Carmen Acevedo Butcher is a professor of English and scholar-in-residence at Shorter University in Rome, Georgia. She was the Carnegie Foundation professor of the year for Georgia in 2006, and during the 2004-2005 year she and her family lived and learned in Seoul, South Korea, while she taught as a Fulbright Senior Lecturer at Sogang University. She has written books on medieval women mystics and linguistics. More information can be found on these at her website. (Photo credit: Katherine Butcher.)
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