Learning Empathy

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So, no matter who you are, if you pass judgment you have no excuse. In judging others you condemn yourself, since you behave no differently from those you judge.
Romans 2: 1

Woe to you lawyers! You pile loads on people that are hard to carry, and yourselves do not touch the burdens with one of your fingers.
Luke 11: 46

How is it that we human beings can be so cruel to each other? Although I may find myself horrified at some of the horrible pain and suffering which I see inflicted on so many around the world, I need to be similarly horrified at my own capacity to not care about the sufferings of those around me. Somehow, it is much easier, than we would like to acknowledge, to see others as alien to us. In fact, each of us as sinful is capable not only of ignoring the plight of others but, as the lawyers, of piling hard to carry loads on them and being animated and entertained by their suffering. We need but recognize, in every culture, some form of public entertainment that involves the humiliation of other human beings or the persistence in political life of the demonization of those who are different from the majority to know that feeling superior to others is appealing to us.

Recently a candidate for President of the United States made the following comment concerning the immigration into the country from Mexico:

When Mexico sends its people, they’re not sending their best. They’re not sending you. They’re not sending you. They’re sending people that have lots of problems, and they’re bringing those problems with us. They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists. And some, I assume, are good people.

In stark contrast are the worlds of Pope Francis in his address to the United States Congress:

Our world is facing a refugee crisis of a magnitude not seen since the Second World War. This presents us with great challenges and many hard decisions. On this continent, too, thousands of persons are led to travel north in search of a better life for themselves and for their loved ones, in search of greater opportunities. Is this not what we want for our own children? We must not be taken aback by their numbers, but rather view them as persons, seeing their faces and listening to their stories, trying to respond as best we can to their situation.

In today’s scripture readings, as in the words of Pope Francis, we are reminded of the fact that seeing the children of others as “our children,” and recognizing our common humanity does not come as easily to us as we may think it does. We are all immigrants, as Pope Francis said. We are all the man in the Parable of the Good Samaritan who is robbed and beaten, lying in the road and needing help, It is perhaps the great sign of the mystery of our reality as one body of Christ that with each load we help to lift from the shoulders of another we experience the lightening of our own load.

St. Edith Stein was a brilliant student of philosophy. Her doctoral dissertation was on the human disposition of empathy. She pointed out that empathy was a far deeper experience than natural human sympathy. Sympathy is an experience of our vital or emotional level in which we share the feelings of another based on identification with his or her experience which we sense as akin to our own. Empathy, on the other hand, is a developed capacity of spirit whereby we pass over into the experience of another and care for him or her, even if we cannot readily identify with their experience. It is an innate, but necessarily developed, capacity of heart based on the depth of what we share in common, beyond the differences of our experiences. At the level of spirit we are a capacity to understand and care for the other, even though they may look, speak, and act so differently from us

We do not spontaneously sympathize with those who are very different from us. In fact, we are more apt spontaneously to fear them. It is this fear that is the currency of a certain type of xenophobic politics. On the other hand, we hear from Pope Francis an appeal to our capacity for empathy and love of those who appear so different from us. We are capable, he says, of recognizing children who at first glance seem so alien to us as “our children.” We must work to overcome the fear and selfishness of our sinful condition, and come to experience an active and caring empathy for those who are different from us by “seeing their faces and listening to their stories.” In empathy we to care of another not only as they are like us but especially in their difference and uniqueness.

In the concluding verse of today’s reading from Romans, Paul writes: “God has no favorites” (Romans 2: 11). The call to be perfect as God is perfect (Matthew 5: 48) must, at least in part, require of us a partition in God’s impartiality and love of the entire human race. Daily we experience the human limits on our capacity to share in such a universal love. This may be our most pervasive reminder of our sinfulness. In truth, there are those that we care for and those whose burdens are of the least interest to us, and, in fact, whose burdens we would not mind increasing. Yet, the word of Jesus, the mercy and love of God, and the very truth of things impel us to reform our hearts and our lives by learning to care for the ones who are “the least” to us.

Empathy may include sympathetic togetherness with another person but is overall a more complex disposition. Although we are endowed with a capacity for empathetic responsiveness, it does not come naturally in the same way as sympathy. That is because it is not simply a matter of understanding and feeling in the usual sense of those terms. In sympathy we share the feelings of another person; sorrow and fellow feeling are involved. Empathy, on the other hand, is not so much “feeling with” as it is “feeling into.” Empathy is the ability to feel into another’s experience even if we do not know that experience first-hand. In sympathy we feel the other’s suffering because we know the experience. Empathy, however, is not a knowing as such. We ourselves may not have had the experiences or the thoughts and feelings this person is undergoing.

So what is our access to the other in this case? It is our innate capacity or potential to feel into the experience of the other based on the words, gestures and feelings s/he conveys about what s/he is going through. Empathetic presence therefore is not knowledge, at least at first, but a stance of openness to the other and a willingness to come to understand through attentive listening and intuitive participation in their “life-world” experience. We might add that while the potential for empathy is a capacity-in-waiting within us, the pre-disposition for empathetic presence may not be equally distributed in the population at large. That is to say, all persons may not be inclined to this activity of sensitively intuiting the thoughts and feelings of others. To reverse the usual functions of mind and heart, I would say that empathy requires a mind that feels (into) and a heart that thinks (into).

Romeo J. Bonsaint, SC

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