In her personal, powerful, and often uncomfortable essay collection, The Empathy Exams, Leslie Jamison writes: “Empathy comes from the Greek empatheia—em (“into”) and pathos (“feeling”)—a penetration, a kind of travel. It suggests you enter another person’s pain as you’d enter another country, through immigration and customs, border-crossing by way of query: What grows where you are? What are the laws? What animals graze there?”
Empathy – basically defined as standing in somebody else’s shoes – attracted a revival of attention in the past 10 to 15 years. Barack Obama has pointed to an ‘empathy deficit’ in politics, while closer to home a Trussell Trust boss has spoken of cabinet ministers having a ‘lack of empathy’ with the poor. It’s seen by some as the magic bullet for an increasingly atomised society, with Simon Baron-Cohen referring to it as the ‘universal solvent’ for problems.
So what does Christianity have to say about empathy? In the wonderfully upside-down kingdom of God, He uses us to minister powerfully to others not just despite, but through our brokenness and wounds. Henri Nouwen writes in The Wounded Healer that the recognition of our own sufferings and brokenness becomes the starting point of ministering to others: “Who can take away suffering without entering it?” and that this becomes the foundation for a mutual reminding of God’s promises and deepening of hope.
So this kind of empathetic fellow-feeling – whether based on imaginatively placing ourselves in another’s frame of reference or speaking from our own, very real wounds – is commanded, feels spiritually significant and has the potential to bring about great healing.
I’m reminded of Romans 12:15 and the command to “rejoice with those who rejoice; mourn with those who mourn”. The exhortation to the Hebrews to “continue to remember those in prison as if you were together with them in prison, and those who are ill-treated as if you yourselves were suffering” (Hebrews 13:3) has an even more empathic flavour.
Make no mistake, empathy done well is hard. It involves a very conscious, deliberate kind of love, radical imagination, and it articulates more clearly what it is shown. It involves the placing of our cares and emotions and wrapping them around the substance and issues of another’s life. And it forms connective tissue of an emotional kind; the bonds forged by dwelling together in pain and hard times are hard to break. Empathy overturns our individuality and self-centredness; is not prideful and self-satisfied, but actually involves the work of stepping into the difficult messy pain of another’s life.
Empathy isn’t just radical listening and sitting in the feeling; it uses the understanding of another’s perspective to guide our actions; it demands a response. Engaged empathy jumps right into the mess, it’s the being on the end of a phone call at 2am, it’s the making of breakfast for friends who can’t get out of bed in the morning because of depression, it’s the long, consistent journey with someone working through grief or tragedy.
The problem is, we can’t always depend on isolated, empathic acts which can be dependent on emotion – especially for social justice. So for the times when we don’t want to feel, we have to make will the servant of love: empathy becomes intentional and muscular. As Jamison writes: “Empathy isn’t just something that happens to us — a meteor shower of synapses firing across the brain — it’s also a choice we make: to pay attention, to extend ourselves.”
Thankfully, empathy isn’t a fixed character trait; it can be learnt and developed. Knowing this, I’m attempting to listen radically and reflect back on what the other person is telling me, and opening up my feelings in that space too. Look for the person behind everything and cultivate curiosity about those very different from you, whether it’s the person who made your clothes or the person serving you coffee.
Empathy is also hard to sustain as a daily functional practice without becoming emotionally exhausted – the classic aid worker’s dilemma. A key part of avoiding empathic burnout is the centrality of prayer: praying: “Lord, help me speak into this situation, give me strength in this conversation, nudge me when I need to have time out.”
And when we aren’t able to constantly give of ourselves and have limited emotional energy, this is where that particularly Christian aspect of empathy comes in: the body of Christ. In quite a radical way we’re meant to see ourselves as a unified whole; the parts of the body “should have equal concern for each other. If one part suffers, every part suffers with it; if one part is honoured, every part rejoices with it.” (1 Corinthians 12:25-26)
This deep empathic joining in with each other’s joys and sorrows is always done in the context of community; extending ourselves and our energies but also being ministered to. And of course, one of the keys of this is pointing to the other’s belovedness; pointing to the future hope but also the joy to be found in the now and His presence with us.
How wonderful is that we have an incarnational God who knows what it is to be human and suffer and rejoice; whose comfort is eternal and sufficient: empathy in the truest possible sense.