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?