Empathy is all the rage these days. It’s the hot new word that some would like to become the transcendent Zeitgeist. It’s all about being inside the skin of others, feeling their pain, and rendering judgment accordingly. The nation is a big emergency room, people are bleeding, limbs are falling off, as are the wheels of society, this is no time for textbook medicine, no time for looking at the flight instruments – let your gut guide you.
Crash and burn.
Empathy, by definition, can only be felt and expressed by someone with a common life database. It’s very different from sympathy. While some would suggest that the best – and to them, the only – way to really bring about a vision of social justice, is for those making vital decisions and pronouncements to be marinated in empathy, history tells us that great strides have been made without it.
It was just regular old, vanilla, garden-variety, sympathy that worked for Lincoln. He couldn’t empathize with slaves, because he never had to live that way. Sympathy feels for the plight of another, but not necessarily by having “been there.”
As a minister, for years I could sympathize and show compassion to congregants who had lost a parent, but until I lost my mother in 2002, I really couldn’t empathize. Before her death, I could say, “I am so sorry for your loss. I want to do my best to provide comfort to you.” Since her passing it is now, “I am so sorry for your loss. I know exactly how you feel. I lost my mom a few years ago and it still hurts.”
So, should I limit my ministry expressions to cases where I actually understand stuff because I have gone through it? When I minister to someone who has experienced pain I have not known, am I somehow ill equipped?
Better – should I be in my job only because I have had the requisite experiences that make me empathetic to wide-variety of individuals? Or is it OK to reach out, even if it is just plain old empathy-deficient and second-rate sympathy that I can offer?
To make empathy the litmus test – and that is what is happening right now, it trumps everything – is to render all else not nearly as important. Empathy is by definition a narrow focus and there is no guarantee that decisions guided predominately by it are right. What happens, for example, when the cries of those one empathizes with because of certain commonalities clash with the rights of those who don’t elicit or even deserve empathy?