By Celia Coates
Recently, “empathy” has often been in the news. In the January 19th Washington Post, Katherine Ellison wrote,
“… scientists churn out volumes of work on the subject, with more than 2,000 scientific papers published in 2019 alone. For all its popularity, empathy isn’t nearly as simple as so many blogs and books make it seem. Researchers can’t even agree on what empathy means. One paper noted 43 different definitions ranging from basic shared emotions to more lofty mixtures of concern and kindness.” *
So, how can we sort out for ourselves what empathy is?
Frequently President Biden is given as an example of someone who lives with empathy. Without a doubt he is a man who cares, reaches out, and lets people know he can understand their struggles. Two months ago, TIME magazine wrote,
When it comes to rebuilding at home and abroad, however, Biden brings something many are desperate for: empathy. On a trip to Brazil back in 2013, then Vice President Biden noticed a blue star on the lapel of then Ambassador Thomas Shannon Jr., who greeted him on the windy tarmac in Rio. That small symbol linked Biden and Shannon as parents of children serving in war zones, and Shannon explained that his son was serving in Afghanistan. Days later, as he boarded Air Force Two for home, Biden doubled back, dug into his pocket and handed Shannon, a practicing Catholic, a rosary.” **
Biden notices. He is not so full of himself that there is no room for paying attention to other people. He is aware of those around him and he takes the time, he makes the effort, to connect with them on an open, personal level. That is welcome and wonderful and a good place to begin, but I think we need to explore further to find out what it means to live with empathy.
For me, the most important thing to know about empathy is that it involves more than sharing feelings. Sympathy and empathy both include the core word pathos (“feeling” in Greek) but they refer to different ways of dealing with feelings. Sympathy can include having pity for another’s distress along with recognizing their sorrow, and most of us don’t want to be pitied. Empathy is more complex and takes more work. It goes beyond identifying with or caring about someone else’s feelings – it really means becoming aware of those emotions from the perspective of that other person. With empathy we consider walking in another’s shoes: we envision and understand what they are experiencing without having to share the same feeling. Instead, what is crucial is to have an open-hearted sense of the person who is having those feelings.
Empathy has its limits. It is not simply – always – a good thing. I asked Genevieve Paulson, a very wise teacher, for her thoughts about what might be called “toxic” empathy. Her response was,
“What I tell people is that when we feel called to “fix” things – we want to help, but that can interfere with another person’s need to make choices, to follow their own path in life. Instead, when we have the feeling of needing to “fix” or “help,” send blessings instead. Or send blessings and strength. Blessings to help them make right decisions and strength to carry them out. We then have helped empower the other person without making decisions for them. We do have a natural drive to help others and that shouldn’t be stifled. We need to support one another. And, It is best NOT TO WORRY ABOUT OTHERS – that sends a negative energy that can make things more difficult for them. To send blessings instead is appropriate for that as well.
Listening to the other person, caring about them, can be very helpful. When we listen, it gives the other person a time to talk it out and see more clearly what they want to do. Years ago, someone sent me a loooong letter listing his problems and concerns. At the end, he thanked me for reading it, but said that now he understood what he needed to do, himself. Writing it out had made it clear to him.”
In 2016 NEW SCIENTIST wrote,
“This may have passed you by, but the world is in the midst of an empathy crisis. Psychologists first drew attention to it in 2009 with research finding a far lower degree of empathy among university students than in their 1970s counterparts.” ***
I think it has become an even bigger crisis than was noted four or five years ago. In these times, people may have values that don’t involve wanting to be empathetic. For them relating to others with deep understanding, kindness, and generosity is not important. If you’ve read other WINN posts, you know that I think our society is lost in a rich world where stuff and power matter more than people. Empathy will seem like a waste of time to many who have a different agenda for their preferred way of life.
In the story about Joe Biden and the blue lapel pin we can see that he identified easily with the ambassador. But we do not need to have that kind of special shared experience in order to have a “common feeling” with someone. We can learn to focus, to exercise our awareness so that we “feel with” another in this extended way. Developing empathy begins with our own efforts and personal experiences. We have to increase our inborn ability to resonate to others. For me, working to be able to see things from another person’s perspective has melted some sort of barrier. I can now sense connections more clearly and know that we living beings (this knowing can include animals) are all in this together.
Empathy is not just another interpersonal tactic, a way to influence or win over others, especially in politics. It is, I believe, one of the God-given ways to experience and express love. It involves connecting, caring, and sometimes, giving. We can have too little empathy. We can get caught in the destructive process of “othering” in which we see ourselves as different and separate and superior to others. Caging children at the border would not have happened if leadership had considered (had been able to “get”) what it was like for them, those young fellow human beings. It was profoundly unloving.
As Genevieve Paulson suggested, we can also get involved in non-helpful empathy. The phrase, “to kill with kindness” dates back to the 16th century so, misguided caring has been part of human experience for a very long time. When we give to others without paying attention to what they need, it can be harmful. We need the balance that comes from seeing the other’s point of view and responding in terms of what they want to receive not just what we feel like giving. My family had to teach me that although I thought I was being just terrific in sharing lots of books, articles, and news clippings filled with information that would help them lead healthy and happy lives, my “thoughtfulness” was not what any of them wanted.
There is one other thing I want to add here: I choose to use the word empathetic rather than empathic to describe someone who has this kind of understanding. For me “empathic” describes people who can see another’s perspective from a different level. They have an intuitive or psychic ability in their perceptions. Empathetic seems to be descriptive of what most of us can be.
No wonder there are at least 43 definitions for empathy. It’s a tough concept to understand, to discuss, and to put into some sort of action. As with so many other things in life – we do our best, we keep learning, and we continue on heading for what is most true and loving.
* * * * *
* “Five Things Worth Knowing About Empathy” by Katharine Ellison, THE WASHINGTON POST, January 19, 2021
** TIME, December 14, 2020, page 46
*** “Hooked on a Feeling,” NEW SCIENTIST, 14 May 2016
Genevieve Lewis Paulson is the Director of Dimensions of Evolvement and the author of many books including MEDITATION AS SPIRITUAL PRACTICE, 2005, Llewellyn Publications
and KUNDALINI AND THE CHAKRAS: Evolution In This Lifetime, A Practical Guide, 2002, Llewellyn Publications
The image that accompanies this post is by Josh Calabrese from Unsplash.