October 20, 2017

Empathy

empathy_big

Note from CM: I received an email from Mike Bell yesterday asking for a leave from writing for IM for awhile. They have received some bad news about a family member whose cancer has returned, and Mike will have additional responsibilities in the days to come. He is also facing some increasing demands at work. Please keep Mike and his family in your prayers. We appreciate him so much around here. I’ll ask him to send regular updates so we can keep everyone informed.

• • •

empathy [em-puh-thee]
noun. 1. the psychological identification with or vicarious experiencing of the feelings, thoughts, or attitudes of another.

Last night I read an interesting column by Nicholas Kristof at the New York Times on the subject of empathy. He reports some pertinent observations on the topic that give us an intriguing glimpse into human nature, especially as it is revealed in affluent cultures like ours.

For some empathy is no more than skin deep. Psychologists have found that people with cute faces generate more empathy from others — “which is why so many charities feature photos of children and why so many conservation organizations feature pandas.”

Kristoff notes that other studies suggest wealth may impede empathy. He reasons that this may be because wealth tends to insulate people from need. The face of my neighbor becomes more distant, and I can afford to become more theoretical about the disadvantaged and their concerns. Other studies indicate that wealth can turn us inward and we may not see our neighbor or her need at all.

In discussing lack of empathy, he stops here, but even these two brief observations say a lot about human nature and behavior.

The-Impact-of-Empathy(1) Our hearts go out to those we find attractive. This is a challenge to Christians and churches in many of our settings. For in Christ even the most unloveable and least attractive are worthy of our personal attention, heartfelt commitment, and unwavering support.

Gently encourage the stragglers, and reach out for the exhausted, pulling them to their feet. Be patient with each person, attentive to individual needs. And be careful that when you get on each other’s nerves you don’t snap at each other. Look for the best in each other, and always do your best to bring it out. (1Thess 5:14-15, MSG)

(2) Our hearts go out to those with whom we personally interact. As long as I live I will insist that we must fight against the separatist tendencies of religion every day of our lives. And the more I read the New Testament, the more I see that this has been at the heart of the church’s weakness in every generation. For Christianity, defined by Paul, is “faith working through love,” not “faith surrounding myself with the people I like and with whom I feel comfortable.” Anything, whether it’s wealth or something else, that keeps me from knowing my neighbor, listening to him, and caring for him, is insulation that turns my heart cold and distant.

The suggestions Nicholas Kristoff gives for increasing empathy in our lives are essentially about engaging life as it is, not standing apart from life and theorizing about it. He encourages thinking about real stories of suffering and reading good literary fiction that accurately depicts life and humanizes people in all walks of life. Taking time for reflection, meditation, and prayer. Going out into nature and exercising our “awe” muscles. Participating in service projects. Getting outside our comfort zones; ripping out the insulation that keeps us from feeling our neighbor’s pain and enjoying our neighbor’s happiness.

Love from the center of who you are; don’t fake it. Run for dear life from evil; hold on for dear life to good. Be good friends who love deeply; practice playing second fiddle.

Don’t burn out; keep yourselves fueled and aflame. Be alert servants of the Master, cheerfully expectant. Don’t quit in hard times; pray all the harder. Help needy Christians; be inventive in hospitality.

Bless your enemies; no cursing under your breath. Laugh with your happy friends when they’re happy; share tears when they’re down. Get along with each other; don’t be stuck-up. Make friends with nobodies; don’t be the great somebody.

Don’t hit back; discover beauty in everyone. If you’ve got it in you, get along with everybody.

• Romans 12:13-18, MSG

Guess what?

There’s not one of us that’s going to do this perfectly.

Only Jesus ever empathized fully with the people around him, and met their needs with a perfect touch and just the right word.

But that’s no excuse to stay locked up in your own little world, wondering why the rest of the world can’t get it together.

Newness of life and the gift of the Spirit are yours for just this reason: to set you free from that prison.

To set you free to empathize. To love.

Comments

  1. A timely message, Mike, thank you. Our family too just brought a loved one home for hospice after the cancer returned. I made a teaching series based on your blog about comforting one another and the Woodiweiss article. It is being well received at our church; alot of people are coming up to me and saying how needful the teaching was. Looking forward to your visit at our church, too. Let me know what day works best for you.

  2. Senecagriggs yahoo says:

    Ya know what Mike, it’s even hard to no where to start? The needs are overwhelming and my own stresses seriously depletes my ability to continuously give.
    *
    It is an ongoing struggle to treat unattractive individuals with grace and compassion.

    • I have always found it the opposite for me. The worst have always commanded my attention and my compassion. I cannot hardly go by without.

      I have found so many who rise and go to church being very nasty. Don’t be fooled at times I fit that bill. Many have often wondered why I spend time with those they would not. I don’t have an answer. Maybe I’m one of them.

    • Sometimes we are on the receiving end of this too. No shame in that.

  3. What made Jesus so special in the eyes of the people (and so “special” to the Pharisees) was exactly this – His empathy for those who were least likely and least deserving to receive it. Nothing short of divine intervention can create that. And I’m nowhere near approximating it yet.

  4. Is empathy a form of prayer?

    • I’d say empathy is a form of love, in particular empathy is love for the hurting. Thus it is an expression of weeping with those who are weeping, mourning with those who are mourning. It may lead to prayer, but is not itself prayer.

      But it also needs to break forth into action. “Pure and undefiled religion before God and the Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their trouble”. Note the word visit, which is more than just observing from afar. ” “If a brother or sister is naked and destitute of daily food, and one of you says to them, “Depart in peace, be warmed and filled,” but you do not give them the things which are needed for the body, what does it profit?”

    • Christiane says:

      Hi TED,

      I think ’empathy’ can become a very special form of prayer. There is the story of Mother Antonia Brenner, who left her wealthy existence in Beverley Hills to go and minister, AND LIVE, within the walls of a Mexican prison for over thirty years. This was written about one incident that followed:
      “In one of her first days in residence at La Mesa prison, a rapist was beaten by his fellow inmates. Mother Antonia knelt down beside him and tried to wash the man’s wounds with a rag while saying the “Hail Mary” in Spanish. A guard told her not to trouble herself, since the man was a rapist and deserved the beating. Mother Antonia couldn’t remember the words of the “Hail Mary” in Spanish, and the inmate finished the prayer.
      The guard, now crying, helped her to lift the patient to a hospital bed and to clean his wounds. According to Jordan and Sullivan, “It was an early victory in a long crusade to persuade the guards to be more humane.”

      The excerpt comes from this link: http://www.thestreetspirit.org/Sept2006/angel.htm
      TED, it was said that people are drawn to those who are appealing and attractive as objects of ’empathy’, but there are other examples of those who are ‘called’ to care for people who are outcasts. Their ‘response’ in service to those outcasts IS a kind of prayer like no other.

      • Thanks, Christiane and grberry,

        Good responses from both of you. Love/empathy and prayer are related, if not the same thing. I’ll ponder these things.

  5. “Our hearts go out to those we find attractive. ” Very good point. I would extend it to “Our hearts go out to those we find attractive and to personality types we find attractive”.

    I have found that even within a church, certain personality types receive empathy and care in times of need. I don’t have one of those personality types.

    • senecagriggs yahoo says:

      “I have found that even within a church, certain personality types receive empathy and care in times of need. I don’t have one of those personality types.”

      Too funny Allen. I suspect you’re my kinda guy.

  6. The Bible tells us that Jesus “learned obedience through the things that he suffered”. I think one reason Jesus had empathy toward the sick, the outcasts, the prisoners, the nobodies is that he always could identify with them; he knew what it was like to be one of them. When I reflect on the character of Jesus I always go back to Isaiah 53:

    He had no beauty or majesty to attract us to him,
    nothing in his appearance that we should desire him.
    3 He was despised and rejected by mankind,
    a man of suffering, and familiar with pain.
    Like one from whom people hide their faces
    he was despised, and we held him in low esteem.
    4 Surely he took up our pain
    and bore our suffering,
    yet we considered him punished by God,
    stricken by him, and afflicted.
    5 But he was pierced for our transgressions,
    he was crushed for our iniquities;
    the punishment that brought us peace was on him,
    and by his wounds we are healed

    We go to church or read our Bibles looking for Jesus, but he may just “be” the non-descript, awkward “loser” we’re trying to avoid.

  7. My understanding is that we all start out as narcissists and there is a window of opportunity for learning empathy as a young child, and that not learning this then is part of what makes the sociopath. Certainly is difficult learning it further as an adult. I need constant reminders such as this post today.

    • “My understanding is that we all start out as narcissists”

      Your understanding is incorrect. Empathy is a natural part of human beings, as well as other creatures. Empathetic behaviour, including empathy at a cost to the actor, is very well documented in rats. Also, shockingly, female feral *cats* that survive beyond breeding age act empathetically towards younger females even to point of bringing them the results of successful hunts.

      It certainly matters If that empathetic impulse is nurtured or not, but humans are not demons.

      “what makes the sociopath”

      Mental illness.

      Terrible things happen to people all the time, life walks on them wearing cleats, and they do not become sociopaths. Live with someone who is a sociopath – according the definition Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) – it will clear up any confusion.

      • David Cornwell says:

        You are correct about living with someone who is a sociopath, or needing to deal on a constant basis with a sociopath. Or someone is has borderline personality disorder. The path to hell is to live with someone who is borderline who is “dating” relationship with a sociopath. Empathy will disappear. All forms of attempting to understand or build a relationship will end in one kind of disaster or several. In my experience the only healing or help comes by DISTANCE. Like distance that comes through running away fast and hard.

        It is a mental illness, but one that is very resistant to healing/help.

        If anyone has a good experience with this, let me know. Or advice, knowledge, wisdom.

        • “The path to hell is to live with someone who is borderline who is “dating” relationship with a sociopath”

          You have by deepest sympathies. I cannot even watch movies where the premise is “oh, is it real, or is he going crazy?”. I’ll get up and leave, it is like being smothered. [well, that and Hollywood portrayals of ‘crazy’ are infuriatingly inaccurate].

          “In my experience the only healing or help comes by DISTANCE.”

          Agree.

          “If anyone has a good experience with this, let me know. ”

          Experience, yes. “good experience” – I doubt there is such a thing, sorry.

          “Or advice, knowledge, wisdom”

          Take distance and don’t be ashamed of doing so. Don’t let people who have no bloody idea what they are talking about make you feel guilty about doing so.

          • David Cornwell says:

            Thanks. What you say helps because it can become confusing as to who the actual mentally ill person might be. I’ve learned that physical distance can bring wonderful peace. That doesn’t mean I’ve given up hope, because its still with me and also with my wife (who was a mental health counselor before retiring). But there have been times when I thought I might be literally losing my mind (ability to think in a rational manner).

            I could write a thick book much stranger than fiction, but that would be very unkind, even cruel.

        • senecagriggs yahoo says:

          My favorite bumper sticker;

          NEEDY BITCH SEEKS WARM, SENSITIVE MALE FOR LOVE/HATE RELATIONSHIP.

  8. CM, I appreciate your periodic use of The Message. Here’s a case where Eugene Peterson’s paraphrase of scripture really works.

    To me,(and as you suggest) the amazing thing about Jesus is how he raised things such as empathy and compassion to a level “divine.” Accounts such as this in Matthew 14 (12-18) always amaze me.

    “John’s disciples came and took his body and buried it. Then they went and told Jesus. When Jesus heard what had happened, he withdrew by boat privately to a solitary place. Hearing of this, the crowds followed him on foot from the towns. When Jesus landed and saw a large crowd, he had compassion on them and healed their sick.
    As evening approached, the disciples came to him and said, ‘This is a remote place, and it’s already getting late. Send the crowds away, so they can go to the villages and buy themselves some food.’ Jesus replied, ‘They do not need to go away. You give them something to eat.’ ‘We have here only five loaves of bread and two fish,’ they answered. ‘Bring them here to me,’ he said.”

    First of all, we have Jesus wanting to get away, partially in response to John’s death. But he has compassion when crowds follow him. Then he has opportunity to send the people away for the evening, but he says to bring them to him. It’s a divine nature to do these things when you don’t want and don’t feel like it…or at least, it’s not in MY nature…LOL.

  9. I have this little kitten I found on the mountain. She isn’t a kitten but to me she always will be. I have fed her from the time she was barely making it. It took 3 months for me to pick her up and hold her for about 20 seconds as I tried to teach her I wouldn’t hurt her. it took 2 more years till I got to bring her home because my wife finally realized how much I loved her. I never missed a day seeing her until the one time she got lost and I thought my heart would fall out. She still only lets me touch her twice a day. Once in the morning to groom loose hair off her and once at night laying behind my legs as I watch tv just far enough away that I can only touch her head. I see her and think she is so beautiful as I tell God this. I think if this is how you see us then I understand you. I can’t separate the little kitten from the cat.

    Her mother when I saw her was so ugly as she was pregnant with this litter and all the hair was falling off her and she was barely getting by. I brought her food every night till she disappeared to have the litter. A man trapped the kits but the only one to not go in the trap was the little one with me. I have never stopped feeding the mother cat. Haven’t missed a day in years. Her fur is back and she has been fixed and she is nothing to look at really. She is the mother of trapper whose leg was cut off from a trap and lives with my mom and roger the biggest black and white I have ever seen who is always by her side. People might think I’m a little crazy but I don’t care. I have learned by these animals.

    Will the cat on the third floor I found starving to death on the streets of Harrisburg with a bell collar on from the people who put him out. I thought I could find a home for him but he is something else. Has bitten me down to the bones a couple of times and likes to fight so he has to stay away from almost everything. He can’t hurt me and he knows it and he can’t make me stop loving him and he knows it. I spend as much time as I can with him. He reminds me of God and I.

    Have a man here who came by in a snowstorm wanting to shovel my walks as I was starting my snow blower and he started shoveling like crazy so I said okay and gave him 25 dollars while I helped him with the blower. Now everytime it snows there he is and we go at it and he gets his 25. It snowed less than inch last night and he was here late and I said let’s wait till morning. My son laughs and says you can’t get rid of him now. He’s right, I’m not sure I want to though.

    I fed a feral cat for three years that won’t let me near him but it’s okay. You see the trouble I have Is I see God’s love in so many things but transferring that to the guy who just speeded up so I couldn’t get out on the bridge on purpose makes it so hard on me. I ask what do you see in us all the time. Then he shows me the cats and other things. I have children and grandchildren. It was the cats though that showed me unconditional. I’ll keep trying and if I would sometimes treat you like the guy who speeded up I’m sorry I was really trying to see my little kitten.

    • Christiane says:

      “I fed a feral cat for three years that won’t let me near him but it’s okay.”

      a beautiful witness, W

      yes, it’s ‘okay’, it’s very ‘okay’. God Bless.

    • Headless Unicorn Guy says:

      Harrisburg? As in South Central Pennsylvania?

      Curious as to which mountain you refer to as “on the mountain”. Both my writing partners are in PA (one Harrisburg area and the other Lehigh Valley) and have told me a lot of local PA Dutch lore.

      • Right across the river from me is Tower road. It’s that mountain. By the way I would never speed up to not let someone out if that was unclear but I do have some choice gestures for someone who does and then God has to show me the kitten and then I have to pray for them, especially them. Which is my constant reminder of who I am and how much I need Him.

    • I cannot explain why, but this particular post made me wonder about how often people are showing empathy to me for offenses I have committed without my being aware of it. Thank you for the reminder, I clearly needed it.

  10. OldProphet says:

    Empathy, like so many other issues in my life, I fear I will always fail at. My heart is so dark and evil.

  11. I go to a therapy group called “New Beginnings” for people over 65. It is wonderful. We were discussing narcissism today, and the lack of empathy it implies. My therapist david that empathy is not “sympathy” bit the ability to put ourselves in the other person’s shoes. Hope this is not redundant since haven’t read all posts.

  12. To me, this was one of the most interesting reader comments:
    “Being from a different culture (Indian) I grew up in an environment very different to the one I came to live in (USA) as an adult. One philosophical and perhaps spiritual difference that is stark to me when comparing the two is the development of ego. I’m not in a position to decide which, if any, is better or which is worse, but I can tell you what I observe. Growing up in the east, you develop an understanding that you are not important. Not irrelevant, no, but not important. As such, you tend to develop an idea of self-relevance rather than self-importance. This makes one look outward. To pay attention to how ones acts affect others. I think this leads to greater empathy. What I see in the US, on average, is the opposite. It is the development of the bubble around oneself. The focus is turned inward rather than out. This, I believe, is one possible reason for the general lack of empathy that Mr Kristof writes about here.”

    • David Cornwell says:

      Keen observation.

    • Oh, I don’t know. Is Indian culture more empathetic than American culture? The dalits might answer differently as a group than the upper castes would; and it probably would be a good thing if the dalits felt more important, and the wider Indian culture treated them as if they were more important.

  13. My Zen teachers always stressed that the practice of “loving-kindness” (which includes empathy and compassion) should be extended as much to oneself and to others. They further stressed that the attempt to practice “loving-kindness” only on others inevitably is the cause of much mischief, because it is rooted in ignorance about one’s own identity and motivations, an ignorance that fails to recognize oneself in those who seem most alien (unattractive and far away) as well as those who seem most familiar (attractive and near). Only recently have I begun to truly appreciate the aptness of this teaching.

  14. Prayers for Mike Bell and his family.