The Poetic Justice of Empathy

Posted on by Curt Thompson

If you have been paying attention, you will notice that lately there has been a growing interest in certain circles about empathy. It has, thankfully, moved out of the privacy of the mental health consultation rooms and neuroscience research studies and into the classroom, the boardroom and the bedroom. In fact, there really is no human interaction that will not be better because the participants are attuned to empathy and its place in the engagement.

Empathy, at its best, involves several elements. First, and how it is most broadly understood, it is the notion that one person (the listener, in this case) is able to be receptive to and feel the (usually painful) emotion of another person (the speaker), simultaneously holding that emotion in such a way so as to move thoughtfully to reduce the speaker’s suffering or distress. To experience empathy is, as Dan Siegel has put it, to feel felt. This is the first step toward moving out of painful emotion: to share it with an attuned, compassionate listener.

In real life, it amounts to the poetic cadences and language of a host of nonverbal and verbal attunements in which one person’s body language, facial expression, tone of voice and eye contact (among other cues) align to match those of one who is afflicted and engage with his or her feeling not simply as an abstraction, but in an embodied moment in time and space. If you have had this experience, you know what I mean, and you won’t ever forget it.

Another feature of empathy is that it is a practice we necessarily must learn as human beings; we do not simply come by it naturally in the same way that we come by breathing. We learn about it by witnessing it being practiced by others or receiving it ourselves. Moreover, empathy moves us beyond compassion to kindness and human flourishing. In this sense, it is not just something that is intended to reduce pain, but also to increase hope, energizing us toward justice: we move to change our behavior on behalf of the plight of others who cannot change things themselves.

Hopefully, then, with empathy, we do not merely feel what someone else feels; we behave differently as a result. And most importantly, that behavior is more likely to be sustained on their behalf; it’s not just a one-off moment, but a lifetime moment. I am far more likely to make sustainable changes as a husband on behalf of my wife if I am truly in touch with what she is feeling than if I am doing what she asks mostly because I feel ashamed or guilty for not having done so before. As I like to tell patients, it is impossible for us to maintain sustainable behavioral change on behalf of another person in the absence of empathy. We can white-knuckle it for a certain period of time, but ultimately, unless we have made contact with the emotional state of another in such a way that our felt sense of mercy is mobilized, we will eventually regress to the mean of our previous behavioral norms.

All of this represents a posture in which one welcomes, says “yes” to the emotional state of another. So many of us have only experienced the dismissing “No!” to our afflicting emotional states, that when we encounter empathy it can feel like nothing short of a cold drink of water for a parched throat. In fact, one of our greatest problems, not least for people of faith, is our well-practiced manner of ignoring what we feel. And we’re so accomplished at this that eventually we not only are unaware of what we feel, by extension we become unable to sense what others feel. Naturally, it is virtually impossible, with this much neuroplastic reinforcement, to imagine a God who could actually feel what we feel. Don’t get me wrong. We might buy the theological idea that God can do that. But I am talking about the actual experience of feeling God feel what we feel.

The Hebrews wrote about this. They put down in words—to be kept, remembered and be re-experienced by those who followed—their encounters with a God who they believed could take it. They threw everything at him that they had. There is not one human emotional experience they refused to offer to him, be those experiences of joy or affliction. The Psalms are replete with the poetic rhythm and hum of a people who approached a God of empathy. A God who could welcome, receive, hold, and through sheer force of His own perseverance of remaining with the deepest of agonies of his people—transform their hearts, their minds, their souls.

But many of us have never met this God. Our imaginations are paltry and afraid, atrophied as they are from so much time spent waiting for the microsecond-to-microsecond distraction of the shifting of the Internet as we peer soullessly into our screens. For our imaginations to be fired into life, we must first acquaint them with embodied experiences with other embodied people to which they can further appeal in memory and in reading the stories and poetry of the scriptures and of the best literature; engage the depth and beauty of nature; receive all that art and music has to offer—and so open the portals of our souls through which we may enter into the depths of our rawest terrain to join the God who has been awaiting us all along. To whom do you run to be found? To be known? To offer your fragile, terrified self in order to have the cataracts of empathy cascade over you? If it’s not a real human, then it’s even less likely that it will be God, for we have a hard time imagining what our bone and blood do not know in real time and space. But the good news of the Gospel is that a Real human has come to find each one of us, and is looking for us still. His gaze is waiting for you to see him seeing you. Hearing you. Feeling you. The One whose empathy  can take it because he has already taken everything else.

At a time when our minds are becoming in many respects as disintegrated as ever, even as we swallow the illusion of greater connection through technology; as our social and political fabric feel like they are fraying apart at the seams, empathy that begins and ends with God’s good creation of our minds is just what we need.

God can hardly wait. He is already feeling how good you’re going to feel about it.

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