How do I love thee…?

In my last “alternate week” posting I wrote of a virtue we rarely consider – self esteem. I want to explore two virtues which are of great importance and closely linked. They are empathy and listening. So let’s talk on this occasion about empathy.

Empathy must be distinguished from sympathy, they are not synonyms. Sympathy means that we share the feeling of another person, empathy refers to our ability to understand how the other person is feeling without necessarily sharing that feeling.

Imagine that you have a young relation who has found herself pregnant. She has just completed her first year at university and she is faced by the possibility that her whole plan for life will be thrown askew. She is considering abortion – a choice which you see as gravely wrong. You will never share her view that abortion is the answer but, unless you understand her despair and her fears – and accept them for what they are – you will not be able to help her. But once she knows you are alongside her, and not the opposition, it may be possible to suggest ways of thinking through the situation and looking at alternatives.

That of course is a dramatic example. But the need for empathy is present at all levels. It lies at the heart of loving your neighbour as yourself. That most certainly does not mean offering your neighbour what you would choose for yourself; it does mean treating your neighbour in terms of his or her needs. And to do that, you have to be able to see the situation from your neighbour’s point of view. In the phrase of our American cousins, we have to know where our neighbour is coming from.

This is not always easy, and – like all the other virtues – it is a habit which we have to cultivate through constant practice. Here is the best practice exercise I know.

Take someone with whom you disagree. It may be a relation, a friend or even a public figure (plenty of politicians to choose from!). Now, sitting alone in a room, pretend you are that person, try to get under their skin. Then, using the first person singular, describe how you see, feel about and understand the situation. You may be surprised at how your level of understanding rises. When you are back in your own persona, you may still not agree, but you may well feel closer to them, and realise that you will be able to treat them more constructively in future. And you will know that, if you are to attempt to persuade them to change, your chances of doing so are much enhanced. My example here is about an entirely imaginary parish priest (very rare, I hope) who appears to treat the parish as his fiefdom. I put on his persona:

I am really concerned about this parish, as I see the congregation dwindling. My people seem to have caught the bug of slipping into nominal Catholicism as the laity and many of the clergy have grown slack. I fear for their eternal lives.

Oh I know what people say – they think I should always be consulting the laity, and doing what they want – I even got told off at the deanery meeting. But that’s exactly the problem – all these things started when we began to treat the Church as a democracy – even morals are democratic now. The saddest thing is that so few people go to Confession – perhaps they just assume that whatever they choose to do is right. But I know my duty – it’s quite plain in Canon Law – I have to take responsibility for this parish.

Am I happy? Not really, and I’m lonely. But I’m not surprised by that – it’s my chalice, just like the Agony in the Garden. It’s not my will I must follow.

You may or may not not agree, but do you think he has a legitimate point of view? And would it help you to understand this if you had the opportunity for a frank conversation with him?

About Quentin

Portrait © Jacqueline Alma
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9 Responses to How do I love thee…?

  1. tim says:

    The general point is well taken: but for your more conservative readers you need to have a second viewpoint that they will have more difficulty empathising with! Maybe a contributor can oblige?

    • Vincent says:

      How about this?

      Of course I’m gay — and that makes me feel a second class citizen as a Catholic. I seem to be letting the side down with everything I do. But I can’t really see that it’s my fault, I didn’t choose it.

      I’ve spent most of my life trying to conceal it, though I can’t see why I should. But now I’ve really fallen in love, so what do I do? People call it unnatural, but all I can say is that it’s natural for me. I find the idea of sex with a woman as off-putting as others find sex with a man. Why should I be denied the chance of spending my life with someone I love?

      I did once screw up the courage to speak to my pp. He made all sorts of sympathetic noises — but it still boiled down to the fact that I couldn’t go to communion, and that he would have to refuse if I came up to the altar. How does he know what Christ wants? But I’ve stopped praying, it seems hypocritical.

  2. milliganp says:

    There is another important word, compassion, not merely to understand the other’s feelings but to share them, even when you disagree. Compassion is a very important “Jesus” word. Christ could feel compassion for people who he knew had got it wrong. If God can do it, so should we.

    • tim says:

      Yes. Jesus seems to reserve his strongest condemnation for people who are certain (wrongly) that they’ve got it right.

    • Quentin says:

      I agree. But in my experience empathy in its nature prompts us towards compassion. I can for example feel for the priest in the example in his dilemma and loneliness without agreeing with his view. It is hard to empathise without love being the outcome.

      I can for instance feel considerable compassion for many people faced by the ‘bedroom tax’ while holding on to the principle that subsidised accommodation should not exceed the reasonable needs of the householder.

      • milliganp says:

        I think you are right that empathy preceeds genuine compassion. Your ‘bedroom tax’ example illustrates when empathy leads us to challenge the person with whom we are empathising; just as we might challenge the priest.
        My elderly mother lived, for a number of years, in a 3 bedroom council house. I felt dreadful that young families were homeless but also found that the council had little empathy with the needs of elderly people being rehoused. It tends to be a progressive problem.

  3. John Nolan says:

    Quentin, the priest in your example encountered the same situation as did St John Vianney, and might be inspired to follow the saint’s example. Within a month he will have been denounced to his bishop for being ‘confrontational’ and removed from his post.

    Let’s just pat people on the head, say ‘I feel your pain’, never be accused of being judgemental, since if the Pope says ‘who am I to judge?’ then God’s hardly likely to say otherwise, is He? Vincent’s gay stereotype needn’t worry about joining the Communion queue; when was the last time anyone was refused Communion in this country?

    • Quentin says:

      But John, precisely because you understand where the priest is coming from and would communicate this to him, you might be the very person to help him look at ways in which he could fulfill his responsibilities without putting people’s backs up. He will in fact achieve his objectives more effectively in that way.

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