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Learning Empathy

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On MSNBC over the weekend, Hugh contended that empathy could be learned.  While I agree empathy is not a natural human capacity, I think that acquiring it involves more than mere “learning.”  One can learn to act empathetic, but genuine empathy is very hard to come by.  The bar for acquiring empathy is higher than merely acquiring facts and understanding, it is more visceral than intellectual.

In The Happiest Life, Hugh contends that true empathy can only be experienced by someone who has been in exactly the same circumstance.  Thus only a Gold Star mom can understand what a Gold Star mom is feeling.  While I understand the sentiment behind this assertion, I think this assertion sets the bar too high for acquiring empathy.  To continue with the example, all Gold Star moms experience similar feelings, but all bring with them to the situation different backgrounds and current support systems and thus each will have a somewhat different reaction to the same circumstance.  That is to say, no one ever experiences the same events in exactly the same way, thus by the assertion that opened this paragraph true empathy becomes impossible.

As someone with a predilection to science and engineering, empathy is hard for me to come by.  By nature I do not deal in even my own feelings, I try to deal in facts since feelings can so often color perception and prevent me from getting to actual facts.  (Think about it – for centuries human feelings of their own importance prevented us from understanding the data sufficiently to know that our solar system was heliocentric.)  If I try to set aside my own feelings, can you imagine what I do with other peoples?  But empathy is a necessary grace for human interaction.  So, how do we acquire it?

I know the only way I could make even the few faltering steps that I have is through my Christian faith.

Like most things in life, acting in a certain way is a good start, but none of us are good enough actors to pull that off forever.  Thus, over time, Bill Clinton’s “I feel your pain” (which is very much an expression of empathy) has become one of the more mocked political statements of all time.  Clinton may have been acting empathetic, but the fact that it was just an act was transparent because of the various cues in his behavior.  So while the I can read books and learn to say empathetic things, acquiring real empathy requires more.

As Christians we contend that Christ has complete empathy for our sinful nature.

For we do not have a high priest who cannot sympathize with our weaknesses, but One who has been tempted in all things as we are, yet without sin.

But with that “yet without sin” qualifier can Jesus really be fully empathetic with those of us that have been unable to resist the temptations?  Somehow to be God, I think He must be able to, but how?

Consider another passage:

 do not merely look out for your own personal interests, but also for the interests of others.  Have this attitude in yourselves which was also in Christ Jesus, who, although He existed in the form of God, did not regard equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied Himself, taking the form of a bond-servant, and being made in the likeness of men.  Being found in appearance as a man, He humbled Himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.

It is the cross where Jesus finds empathy with our sinfulness.  He emptied Himself of his own nature to allow our sinful nature to come in.

The key to real genuine empathy lies not in having the same experiences as the other, but in the ability to empty oneself of your own personal perspective so that the perspective of the other can take hold.  Before empathy comes humility – the ability to know that your own perspective is not so important.

Nowhere is this harder than in a shared experience.  Take for example the loss of a loved one.  Everybody deals with grief in their own way, and sometimes those ways conflict.  So while one person may collapse into a puddle of wailing and tears, another may choose to exercise their grief in activity and business.  The active griever could accuse the other of weakness and the wailing griever could accuse the other of insensitivity.  For the relationship to work each must be willing to set aside their own grief and allow themselves to feel the grief of the other as the other experiences it.  That requires an understanding that your own grief is not preeminent – humility.

Humility is not something that can be acquired through reading or other means of gathering information.  Humility is only gained through being humbled.  This is the example of Christ – He humbled Himself to death to empathize with us.  This is the heart of the gospel and following Jesus example is the core of what it means to be a Christian.

So yes, we can acquire empathy, but it involves more than merely learning facts.  Acquiring empathy requires that we gain humility – we have to be humbled.


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